Brown County launches an independent medical research firm — and partners with the Dane County Medical Examiner’s Office, which has been overseeing autopsies in northeastern Wisconsin since 2016.
The Brown County Board of Supervisors voted on July 20 to hire a full-time chief medical officer and end an agreement with Dane County, which has helped Brown County upgrade and professionalize its services in recent years.
The restructuring is taking place as Brown County prepares to open a $12 million complex, eliminating the need to transport bodies to Dane County. And it comes two months after 12 current and former employees told Wisconsin Watch that they experienced regular harassment, yelling, and insults from two of their supervisors in the Dane County office: longtime Director of Operations Barry Irmen and Dr. Agnieszka Rogalska, the chief medical examiner. Both have denied the allegations.
The unrest among Dane County staff has not affected Brown County’s plans to start its own medical examiner, county officials said. That has been a “long-term goal for many years,” Jeff Flynt, deputy director of Brown County, wrote in an email.
“We are in talks with Dane County about transitioning from providing ME services to delivering those services ourselves, while continuing our collaborative relationship with Dane County,” Flynt told Wisconsin Watch.
Dane County has appointed a replacement for Irmen, whose office recently saw two additional senior employees resign. dr. Cristina Figueroa Soto, the office’s chief of investigations since 2021, became director of operations on June 6, according to Dane County administration director Greg Brockmeyer, while Irmen stayed on to offer training.
Dane County served Brown County under the terms of a contract that recently expired, making it easier to end the relationship, said Keith Deneys, chairman of the Brown County Board’s Public Safety Committee.
“There was an opportunity for us to leave on our own. Dane has been very helpful in keeping our MD’s office up to professional standards,” Deneys said. “There’s no ill feelings, or anything they’ve done, that would’ve chased us away.”
dr. Elizabeth A. Douglas will lead Brown County’s new medical research firm after nine years as an assistant professor of forensic pathology at Western Michigan University of Medicine. The county sent her an offer letter on July 21, Flynt said.
Ending the collaboration between the counties will slow the flow of revenue to the Dane County Medical Examiner’s Office. The office is budgeting about $733,000 in revenue from the Brown County partnership for 2022 — about 23% of estimated revenue that year, according to data provided by the Dane County Department of Administration.
Dane County may also suspend or delay autopsies for Door and Oconto counties under the restructuring, which currently pay Brown County about $100,000 a year for medical research-related services — money Brown passes on to Dane County, which provides these services.
Door and Oconto counties are likely to take services from the new Brown County office, county officials told Wisconsin Watch, though some partnership with Dane County could still take place. Oconto County administrator Erik Pritzl said he expects a smooth shift.
“It’s an exciting time to see these services move into a true local, regional facility, with Brown County taking the lead,” he said.
Rock County, which pays Dane County about $362,000 a year for research medical services, has no plans to cut ties, Rock County administrator Josh Smith wrote in an email.
“We, like others, have followed coverage of the concerns expressed by staff at the Dane County Medical Examiner’s Office, and have worked to promote a positive work environment in the Rock County office,” Smith wrote. “We appreciate the improvements in expertise that Dane County has brought to the Rock County office since the contract was signed.”
New Dane County Leadership
Figueroa Soto fulfills the old role of Irmen. Irmen was Operations Director from 2011 until he retired in January 2022. Dane County rehired him on a temporary and part-time basis in April as he searched for his permanent replacement. He and Rogalska, who rose to chief medical examiner in January after eight years as deputy chief medical examiner, deny allegations that they yelled or yelled at employees and drove some to leave the office.
Dane County never had the full five budgeted pathologists, which Irmen has attributed to a nationwide shortage of pathologists. Since 2013, five pathologists have started and left the Dane County Medical Examiner’s Office, along with dozens of other employees who left the positions within the same time frame, Wisconsin Watch reported in May. Wisconsin Watch was unable to independently verify the reasons for each departure.
According to Brockmeyer, Dane County has since accepted the resignation of the office’s principal investigator and deputy director of operations.
“With nearly 3,000 employees, Dane County sees revenue in every department. The Medical Examiner’s Office is no different in that regard,” Brockmeyer said in an email.
Brockmeyer did not answer a question about whether this resignation or the Brown County changes will affect an autopsy backlog that Dane County employees have described.
Figueroa Soto served as a deputy medical examiner in the Waukesha County Medical Examiner’s Office for more than five years before joining the Dane County Medical Examiner’s Office in August 2020 and becoming chief of studies in September 2021, according to her LinkedIn resume.
Lucas Robinson of the Wisconsin State Journal contributed to the report. The nonprofit Wisconsin Watch partners with WPR, PBS Wisconsin, other news media, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Any works created, published, posted or distributed by Wisconsin Watch do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.