Overdose deaths prompt county coroner to hire more investigators

The Montgomery County morgue in the last year and a half expanded its body-storage capacity to keep up with increased demand. STAFF

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The Montgomery County morgue in the last year and a half expanded its body-storage capacity to keep up with increased demand. STAFF

The Montgomery County Coroner’s office is hiring three new investigators to try to keep up with a caseload jammed with fatal drug overdoses.

The county is expected to surpass by the end of June the record-setting overdose deaths for all of 2016.

RELATED: 2016 deadliest year for overdoses in Montgomery County

This week, Montgomery County commissioners authorized an agreement to add more than $275,000 to the coroner’s budget through the end of this year to increase its staff of investigators to 10 from 7.

The office has had seven investigators since 2012. But between 2012 and 2016, death investigations increased by nearly 20 percent to 5,855 cases in 2016. The numbers are projected to climb still higher this year.

The increases are a result of the opiate epidemic. Last year, about 349 people died of accidental overdoses in Montgomery County, which was the deadliest year yet for drug-related deaths.

Overdose deaths have exploded across the region. Montgomery County had 54 suspected fatal overdoses in January alone. As of May 16, there have already been about 300 overdose deaths.

RELATED: Coroner investigates 145 suspected overdose deaths

Drug deaths come with costs for taxpayers.

The coroner had to redesign its main cooler for more short-term storage to create more space for bodies, which officials said was in large part related to the fatal drug overdose epidemic.

The coroner had to put multiple bodies in temporary storage at a local funeral parlor. The coroner and crime lab budget for this year was $8.1 million.

RELATED: Bodies pile up at county morgue

The new, full-time investigator positions could be temporary. The coroner may reduce staffing if the death caseload gets under control.

Montgomery County Administrator Joe Tuss said he’s confident that the county’s strategy for addressing the opioid crisis, along with state and local efforts, will lead to fewer overdose deaths.

“I think we are going to be able to make progress on this particular issue,” Tuss said.

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