OLYMPIA — Washington’s acute shortage of trained forensic pathologists would be eased under legislation passed unanimously today by the Senate.

The scarcity of forensic pathologists — doctors who perform autopsies — has led to monthslong delays before bodies can be examined, prolonging the agony of families waiting for closure on death investigations.

SB 5523, sponsored by Sen. Manka Dhingra (D-Redmond), would create a student loan repayment program for board-certified forensic pathologists who work in high-need areas of the state for four years. The pathologists would be eligible for up to $25,000 in student loan repayment for each of those four years.

The bill would also expand the training pipeline for forensic pathologists. It would task the Washington Association of Coroners and Medical Examiners with growing the medical residency program and establishing two new advanced medical training fellowships for forensic pathologists, one on each side of the state.

As the Seattle Times detailed in December, when a floatplane crashed off of Whidbey Island in the fall, there was no forensic pathologist in Clallam County to examine the remains that washed up on shore two weeks later. It took another three weeks for the remains to be identified as those of a retired school teacher who had been on the plane that had crashed.

According to testimony submitted to the Senate Higher Education & Workforce Committee and the Senate Ways & Means Committee, the number of board-certified forensic pathologists has been declining for at least a decade, and 90 percent are nearing retirement age. Washington needs about 25 accredited pathologists, but there are only 18 in the state. The Washington Association of County Officials warns that offices in the state are in danger of losing national accreditation.

The bill now moves to the House for consideration.