As drug deaths rise, County autopsy costs soar to $70K

Drug paraphernalia is pictured in this file photo/MATTHEW T. RADAR, COURTESY OF UNSPLASH

With the 2020 overdose death count holding steady at its 200% increase for now, Cortland County is facing about $70,000 in autopsy costs in addition to the devastation of 21 lives lost.

That’s a likely $49,000 increase, or an equal 200% rise, in autopsy costs from 2018.

Cortland is facing a disturbing rise in overdose deaths, up from 7 in 2018, as well as an influx of “brand-name” drugs that are sold in stamped wax bags by large-scale drug cartels based in New York City, Chicago and other major metropolitan areas, according to city police.

The drugs are mostly heroin, laced with cheaper and powerful man-made opioid chemicals such as fentanyl, said Lt. Michael Strangeway of the Cortland Police Department.

Drug addiction is taking a terrible toll on residents’ individual health and presenting new, compounding challenges to the County at a faster rate than ever before, said Cortland County Sheriff Mark Helms.

“We see new stuff every day,” Helms said in a phone interview this week. “We’re not a big city, or a big community compared to some, but we’re dealing with it just the same.”

For Cortland County Coroner Whitney Meeker, the causes of addiction are inscrutable but the results are deadly obvious.

“It’s unfortunate that our numbers are increasing,” said Meeker, who is also a former Texas police officer and retired nurse. “As to the cause, I wouldn’t even hazard a guess.”

Costs and regulations

What Meeker makes sure she knows is the type of drug each deceased person overdosed on.

State regulations require that each drug be identified in a death report, Meeker explained. This means Meeker and fellow Coroner Kevin Sharp must send the bodies to Binghamton or Syracuse for an autopsy and toxicology report.

“If we suspect an overdose, we want to know what’s the drug,” said Meeker. “The state requires us to put down the drug. Without doing toxicology, we don’t — by George — sure know.”

Each autopsy costs about $3,500 when transportation, toxicology and tests are factored in, she said. As of this afternoon, the Coroner’s Office has confirmed 21 overdose deaths and more results are still pending.

That means the County has spent about $73,500 on overdose autopsies, with more bills likely to come in before the end of the year. With only seven overdose deaths in 2018, the County likely spent about $24,500.

County records were not available this weekend.

Vital Information  

The autopsies — though expensive — have already yielded vital drug information to police.

A Pennsylvania lab hired to do the drug testing discovered a previously unseen drug in the samples sent from a County resident’s autopsy, said Meeker. That substance turned out to be brorphine, she said.

Brorphine is a powerful, new, synthetic drug that started increasing this June in the U.S., according to a July release from The Center for Forensic Science Research and Education, a non-profit that works to advance the field of forensic science. While it first appeared in 2018, it was not widely used until this summer, according to the center.

The drug is potent and deadly, with no legitimate use in medicine or industry, according to an August release by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.

“Brorphine has not been approved for medical use in the United States, and there are no published studies on safety for human use,” according to the DEA fact sheet. “Brorphine has no industrial use.”

Meeker was horrified by the brazenness required to create a deadly new opiate and mix it with other drugs.

“It was one of the worst drugs. It’s right up there with fentanyl,” she said. “People are nuts out there. They’re mixing stuff together.”

So far, toxicology tests have only revealed brorphine in the body of one resident, Meeker said. “Probably, we’ll see it again,” she added.