CDC: Pennsylvania coroners lag in providing overdose information

The CDC says Pennsylvania is among the worst in the nation at specifying exactly what drugs caused death

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HARRISBURG (WHTM) – States can declare war and Pennsylvania has — against opioids.

It’s an area of common ground for the GOP-controlled legislature and Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, who has barnstormed the state decrying the crisis.

“We’re still losing too many Pennsylvanians and as long as that happens, I’m going to continue to look for better ways to address this epidemic,” Wolf said at a recent news conference.

But is the state doing all it can to defeat the enemy?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says no, pointing to death certificates of overdose victims.

The CDC says Pennsylvania is among the worst in the nation at specifying exactly what drugs caused death. Was it heroin? Cocaine? Prescriptions? Fentanyl? That’s important data, the CDC says, to help it spot trends and target interventions.

“When we have a drug case come in, we do what they call presumptive testing,” said Dauphin County Coroner Graham Hetrick. “It’s less expensive. It will tell you what’s in the blood, but not how much.”

Hetrick said victims frequently have multiple drugs in their system, and pinpointing which one caused a death can be difficult and costly. He said he recently signed a death certificate as combined drug overdose because the victim had 31 different substances in their body.

“I don’t have time to list 31 chemicals because my job is to give you cause and manner of death,” Hetrick said when asked about the CDC criticism.

Counties in the commonwealth are a mixed bag, according to the CDC. Allegheny almost always lists the different drugs that were the culprit. Philadelphia almost never does. Dauphin is somewhere in between.

Hetrick says for his office to do more, somebody’s gotta give him more.

“It’s very good for the federal government that works in trillions and billions to say we want all this data, and we want you to have people to fill it out, and we want specific forms and we want computer programs. That’s fine. So fund us. Otherwise, what you’re getting is what we can provide.”

The state department of health says it’s working with coroners to get them to collect more data. But, a spokeswoman added, because coroners are independently elected, they can’t be forced to provide uniform information. That would require a legislative fix.

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