A dozen years ago, she tried to reform New Jersey’s chief medical examiner system, but eventually gave up because too many people lacked enthusiasm for change. Former Assemblywoman Joan Quigley recently wrote a column where she called the chief medical examiner system a mess. She spoke about the system with NJTV News Correspondent Michael Hill.
“It’s even worse than it was a decade ago,” Quigley said. “Peter Harvey had called me then — when he was the attorney general — to say it was totally disorganized and that no one was supervising it. Mistakes were being made. Since then it’s gotten worse.”
Quigley says that autopsies have been conducted with poor or questionable results. She also said that autopsies have been conducted by people who are not board certified pathologists.
“Maybe the answers are wrong. Maybe they’re right. But they’re certainly in dispute and there’s no one to make a decision,” she said.
She said the deaths of John and Joyce Sheridan have reinvigorated the debate on chief medical examiners. She said that when the reform was previously brought up, everyone was against it. According to Quigley, funeral directors, particularly in rural South Jersey often had autopsies conducted on their premises, which was convenient. She said that they didn’t want changes.
“One of the Central Jersey counties had just built a new medical examiner lab,” she said. “They didn’t want that imperiled. It wasn’t big enough to be a regional place and yet they had bonds to pay off. So there was nobody in favor of it except the attorney general. The Department of Health never weighed in at all.”
Quigley said the bill Sen. Joe Vitale has introduced that would give the responsibility to the Department of Health is a better way to go.
Whether the bill can get the support to become law, Quigley said, “I don’t know. But the people who objected to it a decade ago seem to be getting behind it. The Funeral Directors Association, which was a staunch opponent a decade ago, now is speaking out in favor of reform and I haven’t heard anybody saying it’s a bad idea.”
Quigley said that she would like to see a real state medical examiner with power to get the right people appointed. She said that current county medical examiners are appointed by freeholders and that they’re usually part-time jobs and they are not required to be pathologists.
She pointed out that not all autopsies are done for criminal purposes. “Babies die. We need to know why. People die unattended. Bodies are found at home. We need to know why. We need good people in charge,” she said.
Although Andrew Falzon was nominated by Gov. Chris Christie to be chief medical examiner for the state, Quigley said that the system would not change unless the law gets changed because he will not have any power. Quigley said that Falzon won’t be able to fire or appoint anyone or intervene in disputes. She says that the law must give him that specific authority.
Quigley is hopeful for reform. “Unfortunately like people everywhere, we respond to a tragedy. The tragedy that occurred when the Sheridans were killed, that’s impelling people to do something about it, to say OK, we really need to fix it now,” she said.