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Transport of corpses debated

September 12, 2007|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

WASHINGTON COUNTY - A debate over transporting dead bodies had the Washington County Commissioners' attention - and sympathy - on Tuesday.

Last year, Thomas E. Wetzel Sr. stopped part of his company's service - picking up victims of homicides, crashes or other unnatural deaths from the places they died. He complained that the pay lagged well behind the costs.

His protest sparked a bill by Maryland Del. LeRoy E. Myers Jr., R-Washington/Allegany, to raise the state rate. The bill passed the House, but died in a Senate committee.

On Tuesday, Wetzel appeared before the Washington County Commissioners on a similar mission. He brought allies who praised his company's work.

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Local police, forensic investigators and a retired medical examiner told the commissioners horror stories about corpses lying at the scenes of fatal accidents for several hours before they were collected.

They urged the commissioners to supplement the pay of body-collection services by adding to the state's rate.

Some commissioners said they should do something.

Even though body-collection is under the state's purview, the county should consider it a core service for residents, said Commissioner Kristin B. Aleshire, who called for a change within 30 days.

"It's a very important issue, and it's going to be brought to the forefront," Commissioners President John F. Barr said.

Commissioners and other county officials talked about taking their concerns to the state medical examiner's office, which sets the general policy of corpse collection in Maryland.

County Administrator Gregory Murray said counties may add to the state's reimbursement rate.

"It's not a contract - it's an arrangement," he said.

Commissioners said they'll explore the issue during their Sept. 25 meeting with the county's state representatives.

However, Commissioner William J. Wivell questioned why the county should get involved with an issue it doesn't control. He also said it's inappropriate for county officials to raise the pay to help one particular business.

Commissioner James F. Kercheval agreed that the low bid should dictate who gets the work, but he said the commissioners should work on some kind of solution.

Wetzel took over Kerfoot Livery Service, including on-call, 24-hour-a-day body collections, in 1991. He launched a public campaign last year to get the state to raise how much it paid companies to take corpses to Baltimore for autopsies.

The state paid $1.75 per mile from the point of collection to Baltimore - about 75 miles from Hagerstown. The return trip is unpaid, except for homicide cases.

On July 1, 2006, the state increased the rate to $2 per mile. Wetzel said it wasn't enough, and he stopped his service on July 31, 2006, forcing the state to find backup providers.

Myers' bill would have raised the rate to $2.75 per mile. It was cut to $2.43 before the House passed it.

A Senate committee defeated the bill.

Maryland State Police Lt. Rick Narron told the commissioners Tuesday that in some situations, "an exorbitant amount of time" goes by before bodies are picked after fatal crashes.

Maj. Robert G. Leatherman Jr. of the Washington County Sheriff's Department said the wait has been as long as five hours.

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