Medical examiner shortage strains La Crosse County staff

LA CROSSE (WKBT) — Overworked and understaffed — these days, no business or industry is immune. For many, it’s not an option to close shop. That’s the challenge for the La Crosse County Medical Examiner’s Office.

“It’s a national problem, it’s a state problem and it’s a local problem,” said county medical examiner Tim Candahl. “There’s just not enough people that want to get into this field.”

Candahl said he and his staff handle roughly 900 cases a year — a 70% increase during the past few years.

“A lot of people do not understand what we do or how much work we do. Period. And it is a lot,” Candahl said. “Somebody’s gotta do it, so we have somebody here 24/7 to do the job. It’s just that sometimes it gets to be overwhelming.”

In non-autopsy cases, the office works quickly.

“In a case that somebody dies at home from naturally, within 24 hours we know what the cause of death is,” Candahl said.

But with high caseloads, schedules stay booked.

“The million-dollar question is how many deputies we need to help with our caseload,” Candahl said.

The office employs 8 staff members. Candahl says he needs more.

“Homicide rates are up, drugs are up, COVID’s up. So it only goes to be natural that our caseload goes up,” Candahl said.

Candahl says he needs 11 staff members to meet demand. The worker shortage doesn’t impact area families, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t difficult.

“Dying is 24/7. We can’t just say ‘Oh I’m going to come to work today and we are going to have everybody die between 8:00 and 5:00. That doesn’t happen,” Candahl said.

It’s a job is often only taught by doing.

“On top of doing our job on a day-to-day basis and then trying to teach somebody what they can learn in a school for a year is, it’s a lot of time. A lot of time,” Candahl said.

Time – like the workforce – is in short supply.

The ideal candidate for the office has medical experience, such as a nurse, Candahl said.