No morgue? La Salle County coroner shelving idea for now

Expansion hindered by shortage of pathologists

La Salle County Corner Rich Ploch, stands outide the La Salle County Forensic Center on Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2023 in Oglesby. The center is located at 520 W. Walnut St., Oglesby.

La Salle County might not get a morgue after all.

On Thursday, La Salle County Coroner Rich Ploch advised the La Salle County Public Safety Committee that he is reluctantly shelving plans to expand the county’s forensic center in Oglesby into a full-service morgue, including an autopsy suite.

I’d love to have this, but I think, unfortunately at this time, we’re going to have to put the talk on pause for a bit.”

—  Rich Ploch, La Salle County coroner

Ploch had previously said that by expanding the forensic center to include an autopsy suite (at a total cost of $1.7 million) the county could, between in-house savings and contracting with other counties, recoup its capital costs within 20 years.

But that concept was predicated on having a forensic pathologist available to perform autopsies in Oglesby. A recent feasibility study revealed what Ploch called “disheartening news.”

The current pathologist is retiring, and finding a new one will be challenging and costly. A nationwide shortage of forensic pathologists is driving up salaries – Kane County offered $300,000 a year with no takers – and La Salle County simply cannot compete with larger, wealthier counties for the shrinking pool of help.

“I’d love to have this,” Ploch told the committee, “but I think, unfortunately at this time, we’re going to have to put the talk on pause for a bit because we can’t do one of those, ‘Well, let’s build this and thou shalt come.’

“You can’t put up a [$1.7] million building and have no one here to staff it.”

Although the staffing shortage does not mean La Salle County never will have a morgue, Ploch said the shortage of forensic pathologists will not abate anytime soon.

An aspirant can expect more than a dozen years of post-secondary education, and graduates today are veering toward other practices that are as lucrative but entail less training.

None of which is to say Ploch is unhappy with the current complex in Oglesby. As previously reported, moving from his cramped office in Ottawa to a much larger complex in Oglesby has ushered in numerous technical and practical benefits.

The facility still does not have a containment unit, however. Ploch advised the Public Safety Committee that he at one point was seeking the unit at the former Illinois Valley Community Hospital, but OSF HealthCare, which acquired the Peru hospital, has elected to keep it.

Ploch said after Thursday’s meeting that he still intends to seek a forensic pathologist for future on-site services. He also is actively searching for a containment unit.