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New Coroner Plans to Shake It Up

January 31, 2008 By:
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Walter I. Hofman

Walter I. Hofman first ran for the position of Montgomery County coroner 30 years ago as a Democrat in what was then solid GOP territory. There should be little surprise that he came up short.

But in 2007, Hofman -- husband of Jewish Exponent food editor Ethel G. Hofman -- ran again on the Democratic ticket and won. On Jan. 7, the certified forensic pathologist was officially sworn into office and began his four-year term.

And now that the 71-year-old Merion Station resident has the office he's long sought, his message is a bit unorthodox: Get rid of the post he occupies and create a medical examiner's office.

Why? First, the state constitution doesn't require someone to be a physician to be a coroner, much less a forensic pathologist, something he thinks should be required of public officials who determine causes of death.

Second, he thinks that the job of certifying deaths should, to the extent possible, be taken out of the political realm.

"I can simply bring to the attention of the county commissioner that the medical examiner is a far better way of doing death investigation -- and bring death investigation into the 21st century," said Hofman.

He added that Philadelphia, Allegheny and Delaware counties all have a specific system through which the medical examiner is appointed. Those office-holders are board-certified forensic pathologists, and don't need a third party to conduct complex autopsies.

So why did he run?

Hofman said that he plans to administer the coroner's office like a medical examiner, meaning that every cause of death will be certified by a forensic pathologist. He plans to examine roughly a third of the cases himself, and rotate with other physicians he knows.

Hofman -- who is board-certified in anatomic, clinical and forensic pathology, and who spent a year-and-a-half in rabbinical school -- said that during the course of his 40-year career, he has personally performed more than 10,000 autopsies and issued more than 15,000 death certificates.

But these days, he's occupied with more pressing basic tasks: "I have my hands full reorganizing the office. Every day, I find something new that needs to be corrected." 

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