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Preckwinkle Outlines Reforms At County Morgue

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CBS 2 obtained this photo of bagged bodies stacked at the Cook County Medical Examiner's Office, which is over its storage capacity.

CBS 2 obtained this photo of bagged bodies stacked at the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office, which is over its storage capacity.

dellimore250 Craig Dellimore
Craig Dellimore, political editor for WBBM, joined the station in 1983...
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Updated 01/26/12 – 3:20 p.m.

CHICAGO (CBS) – Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle has outlined plans for big changes at the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office, in the wake of reports that bodies are piling up at the morgue, leading to unsanitary conditions.

WBBM Newsradio’s Steve Miller reports that Preckwinkle toured the morgue’s cooler on Thursday, then addressed the media.

“I’ve been as disturbed and discouraged and disappointed by the information that’s come to my attention about the medical examiner’s office as many of you,” Preckwinkle said.

LISTEN: WBBM Newsradio’s Steve Miller reports

She said she expected some employees would lose their jobs, but Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Nancy Jones will stay on the job, for now.

“I think Dr. Jones is a fine physician. What we’re looking at is the operations of this office and those are separate issues,” Preckwinkle said. “We’re going to be conducting a top-to-bottom review of operations here – both internally, by our staff and there will be this investigation by the office of the inspector general – I think it’s inappropriate for me to comment until those investigations and that good work is complete.”

As CBS 2’s Dana Kozlov reports, Jones did not attend Thursday’s news conference and was not available for questions.

“She’s in her office and she’s at work and, frankly, I think it’s appropriate that I answer these questions,” Preckwinkle said.

Preckwinkle said county administrators have found that, last week, there were 363 bodies stored in a cooler designed to hold 300.

Recent burials have brought the number down to around 300.

Preckwinkle said the morgue would have daily inspections of the cooler from now on and new technology will be used to help track down relatives of the dead who are brought to the office in order to speed up the burial process.

Senior management at the morgue will be reorganized and new management positions will be created, according to Preckwinkle.

She also said the morgue will place time limits on how long the bodies of indigent people can be stored in the cooler, as well as how long the morgue will keep remains for families trying to collect enough money for a burial. The county will also put in place new training standards for the staff, as well as a new disciplinary process.

A performance review will be conducted for current employees, which could lead to some firings, Preckwinkle added.

Recently, the Chicago Sun-Times has reported that bodies have been piling up at the morgue, some of them laying there for at least 10 months, and that staff has complained about unsanitary conditions.

Preckwinkle has blamed management for the problems.

Commissioner John Fritchey (D-12th), has pushed for reforms in the burial of indigents.

“First and foremost, we have to look at the systems that are in place and see where the problem is. There’s no reason why we should be having backlogs of burials going more than 10 months in time,” Fritchey said. “We need to figure out how those systems need to be changed, change them, and get these changes put in place as soon as we can.”

Fritchey is also pushing an ordinance that would make it easier to fire Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Nancy Jones, whose term is open-ended. Fritchey said the measure isn’t just aimed at Jones. His measure would allow any medical examiner to be removed by a majority vote of the Cook County Board.

Preckwinkle backed Fritchey’s idea.

“It’s inappropriate for … anybody in county government to have a term that’s equivalent to a federal judge, which is a life term. Our highway commissioner has a set term. Our public defender has a set term. It seems to me it’s appropriate to have a set term for the medical examiner as well,” Preckwinkle said.

The report of the backlog of bodies comes on the heels of numerous other complaints about conditions at the morgue. Last week, a funeral director called the state of the morgue “horrendous.”

The funeral director talked about one recent incident where he had arrived at the Medical Examiner’s office recently to pick up a body.

“They brought out a body,” he tells WBBM Newsradio. “It was 400 pounds and decomposed, in three inches of liquid. And I said, ‘Now what do you want me to do with this?’ And everybody disappeared.”

Jones said last week that a recent rise in the number of bodies at the morgue has happened, in part, because the State of Illinois has slashed aid to help pay for burials, the Sun-Times Media Wire reported.

As first reported in the Sun-Times, sources say employees have been disgusted about bodies piling up at the office — in some cases stacked atop each other in blue plastic tarps against a wall of the storage cooler.

When the story first broke more than a week ago Jones said “yes, we do” have a larger than normal number of bodies at the office. But she said there were about 300 bodies there, not the 400 adults and 100 fetuses one source told the Sun-Times were in the cooler there.

While Jones said there is no average for the number of bodies kept in the morgue, 2121 W. Harrison, she said the increase in bodies is the result of budget cuts, specifically state aid to bury those on public aid.

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