Forensic pathologists have told Justice Minister Andrew Little that a proposed breakup of the service into four regional contracts means “homicides could be missed as a result or miscarriages of justice occur”.
“A complete collapse of local coronial and forensic pathology services in some regions later this year is inevitable,” they told Little in March.
But Little told their union, the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists, last week that he would not intervene in the restructuring, the outcome of a five-year procurement process.
The restructuring reverses a decision to create a single national forensic pathology service, which came into being only in 2005 after years of negotiations.
The Auckland District Health Board won the contract for the national service, with four forensic pathologists based in Auckland and one each in Palmerston North, Wellington and Christchurch.
Another 32 pathologists around the country do autopsies for coroners, but forensic pathologist Dr Paul Morrow said the other pathologists handled straightforward cases such as road accidents and suicides, and were not trained to handle deaths where foul play was suspected.
“A forensic pathologist is trained specifically in post-mortem pathology – homicides, complicated natural causes, unusual causes of death,” he said. “So it’s really like the GP and the specialist.”
However the tiny size of the forensic pathology service has long been seen as making the country vulnerable. In 2016 service director Dr Simon Stables warned that the service could not cope if the country suffered another disaster such as the 2011 Christchurch earthquake.
“We don’t have the numbers,” he said then.
Waikato pathologist Dr Ian Beer said the Justice Ministry initially tried to find a provider to take over the whole coronial pathology service, from transporting a body to a morgue to doing the post-mortem and if necessary appearing in court.
“They couldn’t find someone to take over the entire exercise,” he said.
Instead, the ministry contracted with Australian company Communio about five years ago to transport bodies to morgues, and has now given Communio contracts for coronial pathology in most regions outside Auckland, Palmerston North and Canterbury.
Little said the new providers were “two district health boards and two consortia that each include district health boards and private providers”.
“The Government has also invested an additional $7 million as part of Budget 2018 in these services,” he said.
“This has increased the total number of funded forensic pathologists to 10 fulltime equivalents and three forensic trainee posts, across the providers.
“I therefore do not intend to intervene in, or to terminate, the ministry’s procurement.”
Source: NZ Herald