Dr. Andrew Baker began his third term as Hennepin County's chief medical examiner this week planning what could be the biggest expansion in his office's 49-year history: a merger with Dakota County and the various counties it serves.

"It would be a regional center of forensic excellence," Baker said, citing the additional expertise that comes with a larger medical practice and the cost savings resulting from sharing equipment and overhead.

Details remain to be hammered out, and the merger would need board approval from the counties involved. But Baker said he hopes it can be done by the end of the summer. Melding two offices with different working styles "will be a really fun challenge," he said.

The merger may be the biggest deal in what is shaping up as a significant year for Baker, who was first appointed to the Hennepin post in 2004 and currently serves as president of the National Association of Medical Examiners.

In what must be record time, it took Hennepin County commissioners all of 71 seconds last week to appoint him to another four-year term. Baker didn't even have to speak.

"Dr. Baker brings a very high caliber of expertise and professionalism to this office and is very highly regarded both here amongst his peers in the state and also nationwide," Commissioner Gail Dorfman said. "And so it's an easy vote to take today."

The Minnesota Regional Medical Examiner's Office, which handles death investigations for Dakota County and seven other southeastern Minnesota counties, has been looking to expand for awhile. The office handled about 2,200 cases last year, double the caseload it had when its cramped morgue at Regina Medical Center in Hastings was renovated in 1987.

Merger planning

Baker and Dr. Lindsey Thomas, medical examiner for the Dakota County office, began considering a merger in part because the Vikings' stadium plans threatened to displace the Hennepin County morgue.

The morgue is across Chicago Avenue S. from the Metrodome and the new stadium site. The latest stadium plaza design leaves the morgue and adjoining sheriff's crime lab alone but includes the parking lot next door, which Hennepin officials say is critical to the work there. The plan for now is to have the Dakota County operation move into Hennepin County's facility, more than seven times the size of the Hastings office, Baker said.

"If we stay here, great. If we have to move, great," Baker said. "We could merge the two practices at this physical facility and get it done."

The Dakota County staff would become Hennepin County employees. Officials don't anticipate layoffs.

Counties now based at the Hastings office would pay Hennepin County to cover the operation, just as they do now with Regina Medical Center, said Matt Smith, Dakota County deputy administrator. The merged operation could be a step toward a regionalized statewide medical examiner system, he said.

If the medical examiner's office is forced to make way for the Vikings and build elsewhere, Smith said, "We've got a pretty good indication from Hennepin County that they'll be attentive" to Dakota County's preference for a location on the southern end of the county.

Thomas, who trained with the Hennepin M.E.'s office in the 1980s and worked there for several years, said it will be interesting to blend her rural service model -- which relies on death investigators deployed across the region to improve response times -- with Hennepin's centralized operation. "Our model is cost-effective but it's dependent on a handful of us, and that's not a good way to run a department so vital to the counties," she said.

Arming the living

Baker is only the third chief medical examiner since Hennepin County switched from the coroner system in 1963. He still performs autopsies himself, although fewer than the other doctors because of his administrative duties.

Autopsies are rewarding, he said, not just to solve crimes but to give relatives insight on their family's health history.

"I can't help the deceased person, but I can arm the living with information," he said.

Kevin Duchschere • 612-673-4455