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Compromise could end body-transport debate

September 18, 2007

Thomas E. Wetzel Sr. came to the Washington County Commissioners meeting last week to campaign for a better reimbursement rate for hauling bodies from here to Baltimore for autopsies.

To bolster his case, Wetzel brought along members of the Washington County Sheriff's Department and the local unit of the Maryland State Police, two forensic investigators and a retired medical examiner.

But there were no representatives of the people who were really hurt when Wetzel decided last year that he couldn't afford to continue the service.

They're the relatives of the victims who stand by at accident scenes as the bodies of their loved ones wait for transport - sometimes for hours, according to Maj. Robert G. Leatherman Jr. of the Washington County Sheriff's Department.

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Imagine for one terrible moment that you are a parent or spouse who has been called to the scene of an accident by police.

There you learn that your child, your husband or your wife is dead. For some reason, the car skidded off the road and into a tree. When the cause of any such accident isn't clear, an autopsy must be done.

But although there are medical examiners in Washington County, autopsies are done in Baltimore. And so the call goes out to a transport service.

In years gone by, the call went to Wetzel, owner of Kerfoot's Livery Service since 1991. Because no one knows when an accident will occur, the business had to be ready to respond 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

But until last year, the rate for transport - $1.75 per mile - hadn't been increased in 10 years. When gasoline hit $3 per gallon, Wetzel decided he could no longer afford to provide that service.

The state engineered a small raise - to $2 per mile - but Wetzel said that still wasn't enough.

And so Maryland Del. LeRoy E. Myers Jr., R-Washington/Allegany, introduced a bill to boost the rate to $2.75 per mile, but a House of Delegates committee cut that to $2.43. And then a Maryland State Senate committee killed the bill.

Last year, the commissioners might have eased the problem by committing $25,000 from their budget - a pittance compared to the millions spent in the county's general fund budget.

We understand Commissioner William Wivell's concern about paying to help one particular business. And in this particular case, the business wouldn't answer to the county government, but to a state agency.

But we would ask Wivell and others to consider the possibility that while supplementing the mileage rate would help Wetzel, it would also help those whose relatives have died suddenly.

At a moment of great grief, should those county residents have to wait alongside the road, wondering when someone will arrive to take away their loved ones' remains?

No, they shouldn't. But here's a compromise that might satisfy both Wetzel and Wivell: Have the county provide some money on an emergency basis, with the understanding that the local General Assembly delegation will make another effort to pass a bill in 2008.

To that end, delegation members might want to take along a few of those relatives who have had to wait for body-removal service. It would be tough for lawmakers to ignore a mother's plea if she's looking them in the eye during a committee hearing.

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