Retiring ME: Might be hard to lure qualified replacement to 'violent city'

Dr. Valerie Rao had been set to stay on until replacement found

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The retiring chief medical examiner for Florida's 4th Circuit who had agreed to stay on until a search committee finds her replacement has changed her mind again.

Dr. Valerie Rao was initially set to retire effective July 6, after more than six years leading the local office, but when her retirement date came, she announced she would stay with the Medical Examiner's Office until a replacement was named.

But Rao, who had agreed to stay on until December, has now announced that she will be stepping down Aug. 31.

Rao, 74, told News4Jax she plans to devote more time to family and exercise when she retires, and it was her family who prompted the change in her retirement date.

Her daughters, who are also doctors in Florida, insisted that it's time for Rao to take a break. One of them even called State Attorney Melissa Nelson.

"She had a chat with her and at the end of the chat -- the other daughter let me know what happened -- and she upped my retirement until the end of August," Rao said.

The committee was set to have its first meeting July 11 and will need to move quickly to appoint an interim and find a permanent replacement. Without a chief medical examiner, the office runs the risk of losing its accreditation. Rao said accreditation gives the medical examiner's office credibility in court and for autopsies.  

MORE: Accreditation rules for ME offices

The next chief has to be a forensic pathologist, and Rao is concerned that will be hard to find.  

"Right now, in the country, there are at least 35 positions opened," Rao said. "You can go anywhere in the country, and if you wanted to get a job, you would, because there is such a shortage."

She said that shortage is despite good pay options. According to public records, Rao and her associate medical examiner have salaries ranging from $199,000 to $279,000 a year. 

Rao said whoever the State Attorney's Office selects must have years of experience and be ready to work. 

"It's going to be a big challenge to get someone here with experience who wants to come to Jacksonville," Rao said. "I hate to say this, but we are a very violent city."

Records show the workload for Duval County's ME has steadily increased every year for the last decade. In 2017, overall it had over 11,000 cases that included 2,900 bodies, and it reviewed over 8,000 cases for cremation records.

Rao said drug overdoses are consistent and homicides are on the rise in Jacksonville.

2017 Manner of Death Stats

Rao has been very outspoken about the opioid epidemic's effect on capacity issues for bodies in the county's morgue. The city provided emergency funding this year for a cooler and a new trailer for staff to help alleviate the problems.

Rao has offered to work five days a month as a contractor.

"I hope there will be a very smooth transition (with) no hiccups along the way," Rao said. "The new chief will be selected, and it should be business as a usual."

Medical Examiner's Office workload 2010-17

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