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Access Denied: Death records should be open to the living

Access Denied: Death records should be open to the living

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In too many states, you cannot get access to death certificates without being a next of kin, an attorney, or a law enforcement official.

As I explained in previous posts about physician discipline records, Medicaid records, and other information, these types of restrictions amount to access only for the privileged few. What makes it worse is that death certificates — and all vital records — are vital for health research and health reporting.

The Des Moines Register noted in a recent editorial that the Iowa Department of Public Health has created a statewide repository of death certificates — a hugely useful tool for journalists and others:  

Unfortunately, it’s off limits to the public, even though death certificates are considered public documents. Unless you’re an immediate relative or a lawyer, you can access a death certificate only by driving to the county where the certificate is filed — which is often a different county than where the deceased lived — and making an in-person request for access. In fact, the counties are prohibited by law from telling you over the phone whether they even have a particular death certificate on file. They will share that information only with someone who is physically standing in front of them.

It’s so absurd you want to laugh just to keep yourself from crying.

To combat this sort of officially endorsed, publicly funded absurdity, I offer two examples from recent headlines of how and why death certificates can prove so useful.

Death records can reveal health disparities. Amy Lacey at ABC’s 8 News in Virginia produced “Richmond’s great divide.” The story explained a study by Virginia Commonwealth University that attempts to understand the differences in health patterns within the city of Richmond. The study was led by Dr. Derek Chapman. Lacey reported:

Dr. Chapman looked at Richmond’s transportation, education, housing and more earlier this year and found what is available and what is not has created much more than a socio-economic divide. Using death certificate records, Chapman learned the lowest life span in the city is in Gilpin Court, 63-years-old. Just five miles away in Westover Hills, people are living twenty years longer.

Death records are a bedrock for public health research. They have led to important discoveries about race, poverty, education, and a range of other factors.

Death records can help track dangerous health trends. Sally Sears at CBS46 in Atlanta produced “Opiates disguised as crafting supplies easily bought online.” Sears found something that probably had escaped most — that it wasn’t very difficult to buy heroin online.

Sears opened with an anecdote, as so many stories do. This time it was a woman who had gone through some rough times with her husband. They went to a counselor, and the counselor recommended that the husband work on kicking his drug habit:

Sadly, the counselor was right. The beloved husband and teacher suffered a massive coronary. The death certificate lists opium addiction as contributing to heart failure. Can it be so easy to purchase opium on the Internet? In a matter of minutes, Sears found one website after another claiming to sell floral arrangements. Poppy pods are the main thing they are selling — sometimes the only thing.

Note what Sears did there. She checked the death certificate. And it’s a great lesson for all of us that even if a story is compelling, it’s always a good idea to have a paper trail to back it up. The trouble with restricted access to records is that finding the paper trail can be too difficult – if not impossible – on deadline.

[Photo by Mark Jensen via Flickr.]

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