|Screenshot from Oshkosh Media shows a recent meeting of the county Board of Supervisors.|
By Miles Maguire
Winnebago County officials are once again considering the medical examiner model for handling suspicious deaths as they struggle to find ways to deal with the incumbent coroner, who is under fire for his treatment of associates and his extended absences from office.
“That’s an issue that’s come up many times,” said County Executive Mark Harris. Bill Wingren, who chairs the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee of the county Board of Supervisors, said he has already begun the process of looking “into all the aspects of getting a medical examiner, which we should have done long ago.”
Most Wisconsin counties have a choice between using an elected coroner or an appointed medical examiner. Currently 40 counties, out of 72, have a medical examiner, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. Because of their size, Milwaukee and Dane are required to use medical examiners.
Over the last five years the statewide trend has been away from coroners and toward the use of medical examiners. Most of the counties that border on Winnebago County use medical examiners, including Calumet, Waupaca, Waushara and Fond du Lac. Outagamie and Green Lake counties have coroners.
“Medical examiners tend to have more qualifications, but they are also paid more,” said Harris. “Elected coroners don’t necessarily have to have qualifications, but they are generally paid a little less.”
Under Wisconsin law, coroners or medical examiners are authorized to investigate:
- All deaths in which there are unexplained, unusual or suspicious circumstances.
- All homicides.
- All suicides.
- All deaths following an abortion.
- All deaths due to poisoning, whether homicidal, suicidal or accidental.
- All deaths following accidents, whether the injury is or is not the primary cause of death.
- When there was no physician, or accredited practitioner of a bona fide religious denomination relying upon prayer or spiritual means for healing, in attendance within 30 days preceding death.
- When a physician refuses to sign the death record.
- When, after reasonable efforts, a physician cannot be obtained to sign the medical certification as required within six days after the pronouncement of death.
Busby is also under scrutiny because he recently fired a longtime deputy coroner and based on allegations of sexual harassment at meetings of the Wisconsin Coroners and Medical Examiners Association.
Despite multiple calls for his resignation and an unspecified medical condition, Busby has defended the operations of his office and given no indication that he plans to step down.
As recently as 2014, a special legislative committee drafted a bill that would have eliminated the coroner position statewide, by taking it out of the Wisconsin Constitution.
The proposal was opposed by the Wisconsin Counties Association but supported by WCMEA, whose members liked the idea of requiring training and creating a Medicolegal Investigation Examining Board to maintain standards.
A legislative committee heard testimony about the Rock County coroner, who was arrested for stealing prescription drugs from a body. Other testimony described heroin overdoses that were mistakenly reported as asthma attacks. But the bill ultimately died in committee.
While some Wisconsin medical examiners have also been criticized for their performance in office, they are subject to greater oversight and can be more easily disciplined than an elected coroner.
If the county passed legislation to replace the coroner position with a medical examiner post, the change would not mean that Busby would lose his job. “You can only change it for the next term,” Harris said. “We couldn’t change it during the current term.”