Franklin County coroner requests budget update

Franklin County coroner Ron Keough (Enterprise photo — Antonio Olivero)

MALONE — Fees for handling unattended deaths are expected to rise for Franklin County now that it has no pathologist on hand.

Ron Keough of Saranac Lake, head of the county’s Coroner Department, went before the county legislature on Thursday to discuss standardizing coroner fees, and the expected costs for higher transportation and out-of-county autopsy. (Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said Keough is deputy head of the county’s coroners.)

County Manager Donna Kissane said the $25,000 allotted in the miscellaneous section of the coroner’s budget could be used to address Keough’s recommendations. The county has budgeted about $160,000 for the department in 2019, up from about $121,000 spent in 2017 and $110,000 in 2016.

The meeting was held in closed executive session at the county courthouse in Malone.

“The transfer fee from the place of death to a medical facility has been $75 for 15 to 20 years,” Keough said after the meeting. “So I’ve been pushing the boulder up the hill to standardize forms, to standardize protocols … expenses. And that’s what this meeting was about.”

In documents Keough submitted to the county legislature, he advised that this fee should be raised to $180.

Kissane said the county Board of Legislators has taken Keough’s recommendations under advisement and will likely make a resolution in the near future.

After picking up a person who has died without witnesses, a coroner typically transports the remains to a local medical facility. In the southern end of Franklin County, that place has long been Adirondack Medical Center in Saranac Lake, but since Dr. C. Francis Varga retired this summer, there has been no pathologist in Franklin County to perform autopsies. Human remains can still go to AMC initially, but if an autopsy is deemed necessary, arrangements must be made for transport elsewhere.

However, in the documents Keough submitted to the legislature, he estimated that the number of autopsies would increase this year. Without a pathologist on hand at AMC to make the call whether an autopsy is necessary, remains will likely still be transported to another facility — incurring further costs.

Autopsies are usually now done at Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital in Plattsburgh if there is morgue space, or else Albany Medical Center. Brendan Keough, Ron’s son and director of the Fortune-Keough Funeral Home in Saranac Lake, said there is space for about five human remains at CVPH. He said that hospital called him twice in the past two weeks to pick up remains to make room for new arrivals.

“The other part of that is to standardize the rate that would go … from Tupper Lake to CVPH, or Tupper Lake to Adirondack Medical Center, until we get squared away with CVPH and get an autopsy scheduled,” Ron Keough said. “Right now, there’s no set pattern or dollar amount fixed to it. Everybody’s rates are different.”

Albany Medical Center is more expensive than CVPH. It does forensic autopsies, which Kissane said cost Franklin County about $1,800 each. CVPH charges about $900 for one of its autopsies.

As an alternative, Kissane has provided county legislators with autopsy rates for Ellis Hospital in Schenectady, which would also charge about $900. She said the board approved having autopsies done there, but she hasn’t yet started the contract process.

According to the documents Ron Keough submitted to the legislature, he estimates that a transportation between facilities, plus wait time for a coroner and the services of a licensed funeral director, could cost the county $3,750 per case.

He said he warned the legislature several years ago that without a pathologist in Franklin County available to perform autopsies, costs to the county would mount.

“It was all taken under advisement,” Kissane said of Keough’s presentation. “We’re hoping to have this wrapped up by January.”

Managing Editor Peter Crowley contributed to this report.