A coroner's worth

Wednesday, February 4, 2004

When Michael Hurst is on the job, death is not far away.

Coroner is not a job for everyone, but Hurst asked for it. He says he wanted the job because he wanted to be the person who could make a difficult moment as comfortable as possible for the survivors.

No, death doesn't bother Hurst that much. It's the hours.

Recently, Hurst sent the Cape Girardeau County Commission a letter asking them to pay the coroner a full-time salary. Currently, the coroner makes $19,900 a year. Hurst thinks the position should be bumped up to full-time like other county officers. The public administrator, for example, makes about $47,000.

The number of files reported by the coroner's office has quadrupled since Hurst took over the position in 2001. Prior to that year, the most death files reported by the coroner in a year was 108.

In 2003, Hurst says, he opened 481 death files in the county.

There are a number of changes in the job that could help account for the huge increase. In recent months, a new statute went into effect that requires all nursing homes to report deaths to the coroner.

An education campaign aimed at the handling of death certificates also may have increased work for coroners and medical examiners, says Ivra Cross, the state vital records administrator. She said many emergency room doctors were signing death certificates by mistake.

Hurst started out operating out of his own home but convinced the commission to pay for office space on Thomas Drive in Cape Girardeau.

He estimates he spends 50 to 60 hours per week on the coroner's job. He is on call 24 hours per day. He also has a full-time job as a communications officer at Southeast Missouri State University's Department of Public Safety.

He has to fill out death certificates for emergency room deaths at the two county hospitals whether or not the deceased person is from Cape Girardeau County.

The commission took Hurst's salary request under advisement. Presiding Commissioner Gerald Jones said it's too late to make the adjustment for 2004. But if the commission wants to change the position, Jones said, it should do so before next year's election so candidates for the job would know beforehand what the salary is.

The commissioners didn't indicate whether they were leaning one way or the other on Hurst's request, but they said they wanted more information about the coroner's required work. They want to know how much of his increased workload is due to state requirements and how much is his own doing.

Hurst says he is simply following the statutes in opening death files.

Hurst is one of only three coroners in Missouri's first-class counties. Statutes call for first-class counties such as Cape Girardeau to have medical examiners, which basically perform the same duties as coroners but have a medical doctor's degree. Cape Girardeau County doesn't have a medical examiner because it received an exemption from the state legislature.

First-class counties Taney and Jasper also have part-time coroners. Jasper County's coroner makes $16,600, while Taney County's coroner makes $16,000.

bmiller@semissourian.com

243-6635

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