A new regional autopsy center at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center has made the cut in the state budget compromise released Tuesday.
The budget would provide $15.02 million for the center in fiscal 2019-20, beginning on July 1, the start of the next fiscal year.
The 21,000-square-foot autopsy center would be built on vacant land on the Clarkson campus, near the Wake Forest primate center in southern Forsyth County. The total project cost is $19.8 million, with Wake Forest Baptist contributing at least $2.2 million.
The current autopsy center at Wake Forest Baptist serves 32 counties, as well as providing training and supervision for pathology residents on their rotations.
“It is a major project that has been needed for a number of years to meet the increasing demands for the regional medical examiner for western North Carolina,” said Rep. Donny Lambeth, R-Forsyth, and lead House budget writer. Lambeth is a former president of Wake Forest Baptist.
Given the budget dispute between Republican legislative leaders and Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper — foremost over whether to expand the state Medicaid program — it could be weeks, if not several months, before the funding would be freed up for the autopsy center.
Still, the inclusion of the center in the budget represents a major step forward considering that a standalone House bill has not advanced since efforts began in 2014.
House Bill 491 is sponsored by three Forsyth County legislators — GOP Reps. Debra Conrad and Lambeth and Democrat Derwin Montgomery. It has not been addressed since being introduced March 28.
The bill would provide $2.94 million in fiscal 2019-20 and $14.57 million in fiscal 2020-21.
The current center is one of four statewide under the auspices of the N.C. office of the Chief Medical Examiner.
The bill says the current center’s space “is inadequate to facilitate current and future estimated volume, presents significant operational challenges, and is not complaint with National Association of Medical Examiners autopsy standards.”
The proposal first surfaced statewide in December 2014 in recommendations designed to help reform the medical examiner’s office. At that time, the proposal recommended $12.4 million for a new autopsy center.
According to the bill, the center performed 1,226 autopsies in 2018, some of the increase related to the opioid addiction crisis.
A new center would be capable of providing up to 1,760 autopsies annually. It would contain eight autopsy work stations, refrigerated storage for 50 bodies and support facilities and equipment.
Dr. Kevin High, president of Wake Forest Baptist Health, said in March that “as volume has grown and the types of cases have changed, we have been unable to adapt the space — with the exception of a minor renovation in 1996 — to meet regulations and service requirements.
“For example, there are not enough autopsy tables or storage areas, outdated equipment creates safety hazards for our staff, and accommodations for grieving families are lacking in our current facility.”
On Tuesday, High said the new autopsy center "will help us better serve families in 32 counties in western North Carolina."