Marion County's coroner fired the team he had hired to perform autopsies after less than nine months in part because of unforeseen costs in the contract, according to the coroner's chief deputy.
A provision of the quickly negotiated contract made his office responsible for autopsy supplies and services that cost far more than Coroner Kenneth Ackles had expected -- as much as $30,000 a month, his office estimated.
The fired pathologists will leave the office today, six months after Ackles terminated the contract without ever publicly explaining why. But correspondence and other documents obtained through a public records request shed light on mounting costs Ackles had not anticipated
The terminated contract stated clearly that the county would pay for all supplies the pathologists, Forensic Pathology Associates of Indiana, needed to perform unlimited autopsies for Marion County. The agreement signed by Ackles in September 2005 also allowed the firm to use the facility to perform autopsies for other counties.
By February, Ackles and his new chief deputy, Alfarena Ballew, began questioning the unexpected costs and the use of county-purchased supplies to profit off more than a dozen out-of-county autopsies each month. Monthly costs far outpaced what Ballew said she and Ackles had expected.
The fired pathology firm and its predecessor handled about 200 autopsies a year for about 25 Central Indiana counties, charging a base rate of $800.
Ackles said Friday he has more faith in the contract with a new chief pathologist, Dr. Joye Carter, who will take over autopsy duties today at the coroner's office, 521 W. McCarty St., alongside up to four doctors yet to be hired.
Ackles plans to hire doctors and autopsy staff directly to help control costs and to let his office benefit from outside autopsy fees.
To really get a perspective on this story you have to look at the circumstances surrounding IU's termination of it's long-standing contract with the county last year. In comparing the two contracts, Murray writes:
The payment promised to Radentz's firm in 2006, $858,000, was more than what the IU doctors would have received under the old contract, $741,600. But otherwise, the new contract copied the previous agreement nearly word for word.
Ackles and Radentz said that was intentional -- a similar agreement could more quickly win the endorsement of city lawyers and the city controller.
But the new pact had one key difference. It shifted responsibility for buying supplies and other services from IU and the doctors -- who often used the autopsy room as a teaching tool -- to the coroner.
Radentz said those costs shouldn't have been a surprise. IU's contribution outside the contract had approached $400,000 a year to pay for those supplies and services, he estimated.
The story doesn't discuss, however, IU's reason for terminating the contract. AI sources claim IU was fed up with carrying the county's cost for conducting autopsies. It hadn't received an increase in its $741,600 contract in many years, and it was eating all the counties' costs. IU was subsidizing the salaries of its staff forensic pathologists who were delivering the services under the contract, including Dr. Steven Radentz. Also, after Ackles took over as coroner, IU went months without being paid because Ackles' office failed to process their invoices for payment.
Once the coroner negotiated a contract with Radentz firm in place of IU, everything changed. Radentz' firm had to operate at a profit in order to stay in business; IU, a public university did not. What the Star story doesn't tell you, is that the $117,000 increase in the contract for Radentz' firm, plus the out-of-pocket expenses, was negotiated on the basis of the number of autopsies the firm would typically be expected to perform in a year. The county is getting a discounted rate for autopsies based on the fact that Radentz firm is allowed to supplement the county's work with autopsies from other counties.
As Murray's story notes, the coroner refused to negotiate a transition agreement between Radentz' firm and his new forensic pathologist, the controversial Dr. Joye Carter. Although Radentz and his staff were supposed to work through the end of the day today, an AI source says Ackles' office actually began locking Radentz and his staff out of the office yesterday afternoon, meaning that Radentz' staff will leave behind a number of unfinished autopsies it would have otherwise been able to complete before its departure.