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Controversy following Merced County forensic pathologist exit

The Merced County Coroner's Office may soon have a forensic pathologist to replace one who's been on administrative leave since July 11.

In the meantime, the county will have to use a controversial medical group to conduct autopsies.

Forensic pathologist Ann Bucholtz, who was hired July 20, 2009, will end her employment with the county Friday -- her last day of administrative leave, said Human Resources Director Robert Morris.

Bucholtz was an at-will employee and could be let go at any time for any reason, Morris said, adding that she was dismissed because her services no longer were needed.

County officials declined to comment about why she was put on administrative leave.

As the lead forensic path-ologist, Bucholtz performed autopsies that assisted all county law enforcement agencies with criminal investigations, said Deputy Tom MacKenzie, sheriff's spokesman.

Autopsies are commonly done for homicide investigations or any other suspicious deaths.

The Merced County Sheriff's Department contracts with Forensic Medical Group, and it will be available to conduct autopsies until another lead pathologist is hired, MacKenzie said.

However, Forensic Medical Group has been under severe scrutiny over the past year because of high caseloads, resulting in mistakes and inaccurate testimony.

Pathologists from the medical group commonly exceed the national average of yearly autopsies conducted by pathologists, according to California Watch, an investigative reporting center. The caseload often results in mediocre work, according to the center.

"Although some of the firm's doctors have been praised for their skills and professionalism, the Forensic Medical Group also has employed physicians who were fired by public agencies for substandard work," according to the report, published in February. "The firm twice hired one doctor deemed incompetent by the California State Bar."

Despite the concerns in other counties, there haven't been any problems with Forensic Medical Group in Merced County, MacKenzie said, adding that if there were issues, they would be addressed.

Merced County began contracting with Forensic Medical Group before Bucholtz was hired as the county's first full-time lead pathologist, MacKenzie said.

Mark Pazin, sheriff/coroner for Merced County, wants to hire another lead pathologist but needs approval from the Board of Supervisors.

Reporter Mike North can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or mnorth@mercedsun-star.com.

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