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National shortage means El Paso County still looking for a chief medical examiner

By: Genevieve Curtis
EL PASO, Texas -- It's the highest-paid position in the county, but it's proving difficult to fill.

El Paso County closes in on three years on its search for a chief medical examiner since county commissioners fired Dr. Paul Shrode in 2010 for lying on his resume.

Despite an overwhelming presence on prime-time TV, the role of medical examiner is a tough one to fill all over the country.

The national shortage means there are only around 450 practicing pathologists. Not enough students entering the field and more lucrative job opportunities compound the problem. Plus, counties compete with hospitals and the private sectors for licensed medical examiners.

The shortage has led to a prolonged search, and even though resumes have rolled in, the county hasn't found the right fit.

"Commissioners Court, while it is very important for them to get the position filled, they have been very conscientious about getting it filled with the right person versus just any person," said Betsy Keller, the human resource director for El Paso County.

A new state law is opening the door for more candidates. Previously, the county could only hire those licensed in Texas. Now, as long as the applicant is licensed in another state, he or she can receive a provisional license.

The price for communities unable to fill the position gets costly because they have to contract the work out to a private medical examiner.

"That's usually on a fee-per-autopsy rate which is much, much more expensive for the county than if we are able to keep our office staff," said Keller.

Commissioners recently named former interim chief Dr. Juan Contin as chief while they continue the search for someone permanent, as Contin has plans to retire.

Ultimately, the county is looking for someone that can lead them to national accreditation.

Earlier this year, Contin hired a new deputy chief and is now working on hiring a second, hopefully by this summer.

"When we have three doctors on staff, they'll be able to distribute the work load, the case load on all three doctors, which will significantly reduce the case load on Dr. Contin and Dr. Rascon to a more manageable, reasonable level," said Keller.

Keller said they've spent less than $50,000 in their search for a chief medical examiner.

They are continuing to actively advertise the job with different professional associations, and they send out recruitment brochures. They have also sought the advice of experienced medical examiners across the country.

Keller said there is potential for one of the deputy chiefs to get enough experience to grow into the position.

The county considered hiring a search firm but did not receive any bids they were interested in.