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Before harvesting body parts, procurement firm must preserve evidence, coroner says

Visitors wear shoe covers during an open house at  OneLegacy’s Transplant Recovery Center in Redlands in March 2018.
Visitors wear shoe covers during an open house at OneLegacy’s Transplant Recovery Center in Redlands in March 2018.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

A company that procures body parts from the Los Angeles County morgue will begin to preserve evidence in death investigations by taking photos of bodies, the coroner told the county Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.

Jonathan Lucas, the chief medical-examiner coroner, told the board that the change would mitigate uncertainties in cases such as one reported by The Times in which bone and skin were removed from the victim of a 2018 hit-and-run before his department’s autopsy. The county medical examiner could not determine whether the death was a homicide.

Lucas also said he would ensure his department addressed any concerns the coroner staff had about OneLegacy, the Los Angeles company that has a contract to procure organs and tissues from the morgue. The Times recently reviewed dozens of internal complaints, dating from 2002 to 2018, written by more than 20 coroner employees about the company’s operations. Lucas had previously told The Times he did not know whether those complaints had been investigated.

Later this year the county will allow other companies to bid on the contract that allows OneLegacy to remove bone, skin and other tissues from the deceased in the morgue, he said. The county has not put the contract out for bid since 2012.

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Supervisor Hilda Solis had asked Lucas in October to report on whether procurements were damaging county death investigations after a series of stories by The Times.

Companies that harvest human organs, bones and other parts have moved into government morgues across the country to gain access to more bodies. In some cases, procurement teams are taking body parts before coroners are able to conduct an autopsy, even in the midst of sensitive investigations such as possible homicides.

Lucas presented that report Tuesday, saying in his opinion that procurement before autopsy “does not have a significant effect” on his department’s duty of determining the causes of deaths.

He pointed to statistics that showed that county medical examiners were unable to determine the cause or manner of death in 2% of cases in which body parts had been procured. That percentage remained constant in all 27,902 deaths his office investigated from 2017 to 2019, he said.

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“If recovery activity had an effect on the determination of the cause and/or manner of death, we would expect a significant differential between total cases and recovery cases,” he wrote in his report.

Tom Mone, chief executive of OneLegacy, which is registered as a nonprofit, told the board Tuesday that his staff had received proper approval from coroner officials for each procurement of organs or tissues. Mone said the county’s medical examiners had not told his company about any case in which they could not determine the cause of death because of procurement.

Lucas said that he had been holding meetings with OneLegacy to “remediate any minor irregularities that may occur from time to time.” He said OneLegacy planned to begin a program in mid-February to photograph or record video of bodies before and after procurements to aid in investigations.

He said that under the law, coroner officials can stop a procurement if they believe it will interfere with determining the cause of death. Lucas said he will soon meet with his department’s medical staff to reevaluate “donation thresholds.”

Under California law, coroners must cooperate with procurement companies such as OneLegacy “to maximize” the number of organs or tissues that are removed for transplant into patients or for use in medical research or education.

In stories last year, The Times revealed that procurement companies helped to write that legislation and similar laws passed in other states. Reporters found that, as a result, dozens of death investigations had been complicated or delayed, including many in Los Angeles.

The organs help patients waiting for transplants, while most of the tissues are used as raw materials by biotech companies, which process them into high-priced medical products sold to surgeons.

Under the county’s existing contract with OneLegacy, the company pays a fee ranging from $220 to $1,480 for each of the deceased who become donors. The fees are meant to reimburse the county for the time coroner employees spend facilitating procurements.

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“The county does not profit from organ or tissue donation,” Lucas said.

In 2018, OneLegacy harvested tissues or organs from 484 coroner cases, Lucas said, or about 5% of the department’s death investigations. In most of those cases, OneLegacy removed bone, skin or other tissues. Of the cases, 83 donated organs and an additional 82 donated both organs and tissues.

The coroner’s department also allows OneLegacy to monitor government computers “free of charge” so that it quickly knows about every death, Lucas wrote.

If the deceased is not a registered donor, OneLegacy contacts the family to request a donation. If the person’s family cannot be found within 12 hours, OneLegacy may still procure body parts under a state law. That law allows hospital administrators and other officials to authorize the procurement even if the person was not registered as a donor.


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