Probe Finds Scrutiny by Coroners Lacking When the Elderly Die


ProPublica and PBS “Frontline” say they have identified more than three dozen cases in which the alleged neglect, abuse or even murder of senior citizens eluded authorities. But for the intervention of whistleblowers, concerned relatives and others, the truth about these deaths might never have come to light. Often, the system errs by omission. If a senior dies under suspicious circumstances, there’s no guarantee anyone will ever investigate, and autopsies on the elderly have become increasingly rare.

ProPublica, in concert with other news organizations, has been scrutinizing the nation’s medical examiner officers, which are responsible for probing sudden and unusual fatalities. It has found that these agencies — hampered by chronic underfunding, a shortage of trained doctors and a lack of national standards — have sometimes helped to send innocent people to prison and allowed killers to walk free. Concerning the deaths of the elderly, it found that when treating physicians report that a death is natural, coroners and medical examiners almost never investigate; that in most states doctors canfill out a death certificate without ever seeing the body, and that the rate of autopsies of seniors declined by more than half between 1972 and 2007.

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