With the resignation of the only two state forensic medical examiners qualified to assist county coroners, Montana will outsource its autopsies to other states during the coming weeks.
That means shipping bodies to Seattle and Rapid City, S.D., for autopsies.
“It will be a minor inconvenience for those involved, but we are trying to make it as seamless and easy as we can,” said Mike Milburn, deputy chief of staff in the Montana Attorney General’s Office.
Dr. Gary Dale, former chief medical examiner for the Montana State Crime Lab in Missoula, retired in mid-April but stayed on temporarily to assist the acting medical examiner, Dr. Walter Kemp.
Now Kemp has resigned, effective July 1.
As of July 2, there will be no forensic medical examiner in the state qualified to assist coroners with autopsies.
The bodies of those who die under suspicious circumstances in the western part of the state will be driven by a coroner to Seattle. Bodies in the eastern part of the state will be transported to Rapid City for autopsy.
The state has hired a new medical examiner, who will start in mid-August, and will have a temporary medical examiner assist the lab with some autopsies intermittently, Milburn said.
Milburn said he considers the transition an inconvenience but not unusual. Wyoming, for example has no state pathologist and outsources all its autopsies to other states, he said.
“We have never had to do this before,” he said. “But other states do.”
Southern Alaska is another example, he said. Coroners there send bodies to Seattle for autopsy.
In total, the State Crime Lab performs autopsies on about 500 individuals each year, Milburn said. Unattended or suspicious deaths are split evenly between the western and eastern parts of the states.
Kemp and Dale declined to comment on their joint departure but said they would be happy to discuss the matter later in July, after Kemp starts his new position as an associate professor at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine in Grand Forks.
In his letter of resignation, Kemp cited serious concerns about his employment at the crime lab but said he is proud of his service to the people of Montana.
"I believe I have provided excellent service to the state of Montana in my almost 10 years here," he wrote. "I have never been satisfied with the status quo, and always sought to improve the work that I was doing."
Kemp said he will retire with approximately 400 hours of unpaid comp time.
In fact, before officials could hire Kemp's replacement, the state had to raise the pay for the position by $55,000 a year — 40 percent more than the state medical examiner and deputy state medical examiner currently earn.
Additionally, Kemp said that he and Dale worked on the autopsies alone, with no technical assistance.
But he isn't leaving the crime lab because of unpaid hours or lack of technical support, he said.
“In my opinion, as there have been no sincere efforts made to retain Dr. Dale or I, or address our concerns with the current situation regarding forensic pathology services in Montana, it is my impression that our services are not considered vital to the state,” Kemp wrote in his resignation letter.
“Briefly, my reasons for leaving are based upon my professional code of ethics and my concerns regarding non-technical support for the medical examiner’s office,” he continued.
Kemp and his wife are both from Montana, and he said he had no desire to leave the state but considered the current working conditions “unworkable.”
"To be clear," he wrote, "I am extremely grateful that an academic position is available to me, and I look forward to my upcoming position, but do not equate this with me wanting to leave Montana. As a native Montanan who wanted nothing more than to return to his home state and practice forensic pathology, I am leaving an unworkable situation and moving into a very acceptable alternative position.
"But if the situation in Montana were different, I would never have been looking at other locations."
Milburn said that Kemp and Dale’s workload was “less than average,” compared to a national scale and confirmed that the state would be adding additional personnel to assist the new chief medical examiner and her deputy.
Officials are also using the transition to appoint a new deputy forensic medical examiner in Billings. Those autopsies were previously contracted out to non-state employees.
The transition has been announced to coroners across the state, who have reported some trepidation about the new system. But Milburn said transferring bodies to other states won't delay autopsies.
“In the short term, there is always that question, that nervousness of how is this all going to work,” he said.