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Published: Friday, 3/14/2003

Tox lab closing unfortunate

In these tough economic times, Ohio educational institutions are raising tuition and fees for students, cutting faculty and staff jobs, eliminating programs, and reluctantly taking other austerity steps. It's the unfortunate new order of the day, mandated by reductions in state funding and other sources of income.

Viewed against that backdrop, the Medical College of Ohio's decision Monday to close its forensic toxicology laboratory “within the next several days” certainly was understandable.

Closing the facility could save MCO $1 million annually, according to Russell Armistead, who recommended the move. He's a consultant hired by MCO - for a fee of $2,000 per day - as interim chief financial officer and interim chief of the college's hospitals.

The lab wasn't making much money, he explained, and “wasn't critical to either our education, patient care, or research missions.”

But what Mr. Armistead neglected to mention was another important college mission - community service - to which that lab was quite critical.

For 19 counties in northwest Ohio and southeastern Michigan, that lab was the sole source of toxicology tests, essential for county coroners who are investigating the circumstances of deaths. The lab also performed other tests for area law enforcement agencies and hospitals.

Lucas County Coroner Dr. James Patrick, whose office has relied on the lab since 1985, termed the abrupt closing “quite a shock.” It left officials scrambling to find a new source of those vital tests, so that death investigations would not be delayed throughout the region.

One axiom of effective community relations calls for government-funded institutions and agencies to consult with “stakeholders,” individuals in the community who will be impacted by an action.

Given a chance for input, and a little time, perhaps Dr. Patrick and his colleagues throughout the region could have suggested alternatives to keep the tox lab in operation. At the least, consultation would have allowed an orderly transition to a new source of these essential tests.

As the economizing continues, Mr. Armistead must avoid the appearance of high-handedness or of being inconsiderate of the needs of the larger community in which MCO exists, a community upon which the college relies for tax dollars that fund the institution.

As Dr. Patrick hinted, Mr. Armistead's generous daily fee - more than many people earn in a month - may contribute, however unfairly, to such misperceptions.

Consulting community stakeholders will avoid the impression that decisions affecting the whole community are being handed down from on high by individuals economically isolated from the community, and the every-day realities of life.

MCO trustees also should review proposed cuts with special care to assure that they are totally appropriate, and not being made, even in part, to justify a consultant's fee. Mr. Armistead's decision on the toxicology lab might be a good starting point.

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