PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The cost of using outside contractors to perform autopsies in Rhode Island has more than tripled in recent years, fueled largely by a staffing shortage in the Office of the Medical Examiner.

Records show the state spent more than $1.1 million on contract forensic pathologists in fiscal year 2021-22, a dramatic increase from prior years: $247,105 in fiscal year 2020-21, $262,535 in 2019-20 and $184,705 in 2018-19.

R.I. Department of Health officials said the heavy reliance on outside contractors to perform the postmortem examinations comes amid a “very significant national shortage of forensic pathologists.”

“This is not unique to Rhode Island,” said Seema Dixit, deputy director at the Health Department. “The shortage of forensic pathologists has caused almost all states to rely on contractors.”

But the problem isn’t a new one. Rhode Island has been without a board-certified chief medical examiner since 2016, when Dr. Cristina Stanley resigned.

Since then, the state has relied on Dr. Alexander Chirkov as a contract chief pathologist. There are two assistant medical examiner positions that are currently vacant, with one full-time pathologist on staff.

Dixit acknowledged it’s more expensive to hire outside contractors to do this work, and said the biggest hurdle to hiring in-house pathologists is the state’s current compensation levels. As a result, the Heath Department has proposed pay raises for both assistant and chief medical examiners.

The chief’s pay would go from $295,000 to $350,000 and the assistant medical examiner would go from $200,000 to $220,000, if approved by the Department of Administration.

“This is an attempt to attract and make the position more competitive across the country,” Dixit said. “We are looking forward to receiving more applications as a results once this salary increase happens.”

The chief medical examiner in Massachusetts is paid about $400,000 per year, according to the state’s online payroll database.

Despite the staffing shortage, Dixit said Rhode Island is not experiencing a backlog in autopsies.

“We have still managed to ensure that our cases — the autopsies — happen in a timely fashion,” Dixit said. “Our cases are closed, which is the reason we have five part-time contractors who we rely on.”

The number of autopsies in the state has been on a steady increase in recent years. In fiscal year 2019, the state performed 656 full autopsies. That rose to 727 in fiscal year 2020, 809 in fiscal year 2021 and 914 last fiscal year.

The autopsies do not reflect overall deaths in Rhode Island, as the procedure is only required in specific circumstances, such as suspicious or unintended deaths.

Dixit said the opioid crisis and related overdose deaths has been the main driver for the increase in autopsies.

“Overdose deaths require full autopsies to prosecute drug dealers,” she said.

Tim White (twhite@wpri.com) is the Target 12 managing editor and chief investigative reporter at 12 News, and the host of Newsmakers. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook.