CMA, UAPD and SJMS applaud legislation to require physician-conducted autopsies

February 23, 2018

SB 1303 would restore public confidence, protect physician independence and modernize medical examiner offices across California.

February 23, 2018

This week, State Senators Richard Pan, M.D., and Cathleen Galgiani introduced Senate Bill 1303, which would require counties with populations of 500,000 or more residents to replace the office of the coroner with an office of the medical examiner. Current law allows non-medically trained individuals to conduct autopsies, and SB 1303 would require that the medical examiner be a licensed physician and surgeon duly qualified as a specialist in pathology.

The legislation is the result, in part, to a high-profile case in San Joaquin County. In December 2017, the County’s longtime Chief Medical Examiner, Bennet Omalu, M.D., and forensic pathologist, Susan Parson, M.D., resigned over the “routine practice” of interference from Sherriff-Coroner Steve Moore. Moore, according to Dr. Omalu, regularly interfered with death investigations and used his political office to protect law enforcement officers in cases of persons who died while in custody or during arrest.

SB 1303 is sponsored by the California Medical Association (CMA) and the Union of American Physicians and Dentists (UAPD).

“Physicians have a unique obligation to put the patient first, and thus, they must be empowered to work independently,” said CMA President Theodore M. Mazer, M.D. “Allowing non-physicians to influence the practice of medicine in any way, shape or form, puts all patients at risk. No family should have to worry about their loved one’s autopsy being corrupted, and SB 1303 would restore public trust by removing the possibility of conflict of interest.”

The issue of diminished public trust in the autopsy process is not new. The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors swiftly recently voted to adopt the independent Medical Examiner model after similar allegations came to light. Nationally, California is one of the last states to make the change to a Medical Examiner system.

“For the sake of families seeking closure and justice, we must ensure the accuracy of forensic autopsies,” said UAPD President Stuart A. Bussey, M.D., J.D. “Guaranteeing the autonomy and independence of forensic pathologists and other physicians will help rebuild public trust and uphold the interest of the common good for families throughout the state.”

Drs. Parson and Omalu have stated that once the autonomy and independence of the San Joaquin County Coroner’s Office can be guaranteed, they will both consider withdrawing their resignations and returning to their jobs.

"In addition to preventing the improper influence or corruption of autopsies, SB 1303 is smart and responsible policy as it only applies to the largest counties that have the resources to establish an independent medical examiner's office," said San Joaquin Medical Society (SJMS) President R. Grant Mellor, M.D. "California is facing a physician shortage, which is felt acutely in San Joaquin County, and we must retain these talented physicians and get Drs. Parson and Omalu back to work as soon as possible."

More information:

CMA: Dr. Omalu’s resignation letter and memo

CMA: Dr. Parson’s memo

SJMS: Letter to the County Board of Supervisors

CMA: Physicians call for immediate separation of sheriff and coroner’s office

SJMS: Second Letter to the County Board of Supervisors

# # #

The California Medical Association represents the state’s physicians with more than 43,000 members in all modes of practice and specialties. CMA is dedicated to the health of all patients in California. For more information, please visit CMAnet.org, and follow CMA on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram.

Founded by a private practice physician in 1972, over the last forty years the Union of American Physicians and Dentists has grown into the largest union representing licensed doctors in the United States. UAPD members work for the State of California, California counties, non-profit healthcare clinics, and in private practice. Affiliated with AFSCME and the AFL-CIO, UAPD is proud to bring the strength of the labor movement to the aid of working doctors in the interest of better healthcare for all. For more information, please visit UAPD.com.

The San Joaquin Medical Society is a professional association representing physicians from every medical specialty and practice setting as well as residents from San Joaquin General Hospital. For more than 130 years, SJMS has been at the forefront of current medicine, ensuring that its members are represented in the areas of public policy, government relations and community relations. For more information, please visit SJCMS.org.