Toronto to take on more autopsies when Hamilton’s pathology unit closes in March

The head of the union that represents workers at Hamilton’s soon-to-be closed forensic pathology unit says his concern about the shuttering is not the job losses, but a potential loss in quality of service.

Dave Murphy of CUPE Local 7800 believes the closure — moved up by the province to March 30 from July 31 — is more about a “power struggle” between the province and pathologists in Hamilton than about the estimated annual $750,000 the Doug Ford government says it will save by moving coroner services to Toronto.

Murphy told Global News that he believes two complaints to the province’s Death Investigation Oversight Committee (DIOC) against Ontario chief coroner Dr. Dirk Huyer, and the chief forensic pathologist Dr. Michael Pollanen — as insinuated in a 2019 National Post article — is likely the true reason for the move.

“Those two people closed the Hamilton unit. Too much of a coincidence here,” said Murphy.

Murphy says the problem could be compounded in the future with recent spikes in caseloads across the province including a 70 percent spike between 2014 and 2019 in Hamilton.

The city had a total of five pathologists in its unit, with four having the ability to perform a full range of autopsies including deaths connected to criminal cases, according to a 2019 solicitor general’s report.

At the end of the province’s 20180-19 fiscal year on March 31, 2019, Murphy says that number went down to just three pathologists handling about 450 or more cases across Hamilton, Niagara, Haldimand, Norfolk, Brant and Dufferin covering homicides, pediatric deaths and overdoses.

The province confirmed that number to Global News, admitting that the city accounted for 16 per cent of the province’s 8,500 medicolegal autopsies in 2018/19.

Those cases are now expected to be put into the hands of the 16 pathologists in Toronto who are already handling a caseload of around 3,700 autopsies per year.

“Hamilton is going to be putting Toronto at almost near-maximum capacity,” said Murphy.

“Now, why would you want to max out with an opioid crisis happening when you’ve got a unit in Hamilton that can continue to do that?”

In July 2019, the province decided to close the Hamilton hospital-based regional forensic pathology unit, saying it had “staffing and other operational difficulties.”

That plan outlined a transfer of all Hamilton autopsy cases to the Toronto Forensic Pathology Unit by July 2020, saying it would use six autopsy bays that are not in use.

“The Office estimated that the closure could result in $750,000 annual savings after two years of decommissioning,” the report said.

In August 2019, the province’s Official Opposition called for a public review of the planned shutdown of Hamilton’s forensic pathology unit, citing “revenge” as a potential factor in the decision to move autopsies to Toronto.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said in a statement that the Doug Ford government needed to “immediately halt” the planned shutdown of the pathology unit over concern it will negatively impact police forces, municipalities and grieving families.

“I’ve been fighting the closure of the Hamilton Health Sciences forensic pathology unit because of the extra pain and hardship it’s going to cause families in the Hamilton and Niagara regions,” said Horwath.

“Having to travel to Toronto, and arranging to bring the remains of your loved one back home to be laid to rest — those are stresses that families already living a nightmare shouldn’t have to face.”

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