Three individuals have submitted applications to become the next chief medical examiner for Guam, according to Attorney General Leevin Camacho, who spoke during Thursday's meeting of the Commission on Post-Mortem Examinations.
Camacho said a fourth individual also expressed interest in the position, but he did not believe that person meets the qualifications just yet.
During the meeting, the commission voted to create a search committee including Camacho and Dr. John Ray Taitano, who will interview the applicants and make recommendations by the next meeting, tentatively scheduled for mid-October.
"The suggestion is we expedite the interview process and plan on coming back around Oct. 15," Camacho said. "This is going to be about a three-week turnaround. Dr. Taitano, hopefully your schedule permits us moving pretty quickly on this and coming back, and hopefully having some good news that we've selected a candidate."
None of the candidates has a license to practice medicine in Guam. Any offer would be contingent on getting that done, Camacho said.
Taitano noted it takes six months to a year to get the documents together for a license application on island.
Camacho said the applicants meet every other legal requirement, including being licensed forensic pathologists, but he did not know whether they've already started the application process.
Taitano said it would be easier for them to decide who would be the best candidate if the applicants first show that they meet the requirements for Guam licensure.
"They all have to go through the process to ensure they're indeed qualified to get a Guam license," Taitano said.
Guam has had no chief medical examiner since Dr. Aurelio Espinola retired in January 2019. The post-mortem commission has been actively engaged in recruiting but there is a shortage of forensic medical examiners nationwide, according to a release from the Office of the Attorney General.
In the interim, the commission has been securing contracts with the Guam Memorial Hospital Authority and several off-island pathologists to perform both forensic and non-forensic examinations.
Staffing issues, 10-hour work days
Meanwhile, the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner is experiencing serious staffing issues. Administrative assistant Johanna Bamba said the office has only two employees – herself and the morgue attendant.
"We work about seven days a week, 10 hours a day most days. I'm hoping we can go ahead and recruit another personnel. If that's possible, that would really help alleviate all the stress and workload that we have to spread between two employees," Bamba said.
She is looking at either an administrative clerk or a mortician to become the new full-time employee.
The fiscal year 2022 budget law, however, doesn't include funding to support hiring additional staff, she said. The appropriation for the office in the budget act is about $432,000, which is the same as the appropriation in fiscal 2021, according to Bamba.
Speaking to GMHA Administrator Lillian Perez-Posadas, Camacho said he wondered if there was a way to work out a cost-share with the hospital, as they've worked closely and have often relied on GMH staff.
Camacho also said the commission could approve a laundry list of needs for the medical examiner's office but without the funding to support it, he didn't want to give false hope with recruitment.
The commission is seeking to resubmit proposed fee legislation to Speaker Therese Terlaje, who chairs the Legislature's committee on health.
"The fee legislation will enable the OCME to impose fees for storage, morgue processing, human body transport, autopsy reports and other services. All fees will be paid to the Treasurer of Guam and placed in the Office of Post-Mortem Examinations Operations Revolving Fund," the OAG stated in a release.
Moreover, if a new chief medical examiner is hired, the commission will know their salary at that point, "and then we can work backward and see if they come in under budget, how much room we would have to take up additional staff," Camacho told Bamba during the meeting.