Public Health Committee
JOINT FAVORABLE REPORT
AN ACT CONCERNING ACCESS TO DEATH CERTIFICATES.
Joint Favorable Substitute
SPONSORS OF BILL:
Public Health Committee
REASONS FOR BILL:
To restrict access to certain information on death certificates.
Substitute Language: Restricts access to a certified copy of a death certificate for any death occurring within the last 100 years to immediate family members, authorized government agencies, researchers, certain medical professionals, and any other person who demonstrates the certificate is needed for the determination or protection of a personal or property right.
It allows a town registrar to issue a “certificate of death registration” (e.g., a short form) that includes only the decedent's name, gender, cause of death, date, and location of death to anyone other than those mentioned above. It establishes a $15 fee for the certificate of death registration.
RESPONSE FROM ADMINISTRATION/AGENCY:
Jewel Mullen, MD, MPH, MPA, and Commissioner, Department of Public Health (DPH): The bill as proposed would allow a certified death certificate of a child to be withheld from a member of the public if such disclosure would cause undue hardship for the family of the child. The proposal does not describe what constitutes an undue hardship or who has the discretion to make such a determination; and does not describe who is exempt from the restriction. The bill as proposed would need clarification so that the provision to restrict the release of certain death certificates can be administered fairly and consistently among the State Vital Records Office.
Periodically, DPH receives inquiries from grieving relatives expressing concerns about the public's access to their family member's death certificate. Often, these deaths involve a communicable disease, drug overdose or suicide. Privacy concerns related to public disclosure of death certificates affect many grieving families, regardless of age. A more manageable way to protect the privacy of family members of decedents is to restrict cause and manner of death on all death certificates, regardless of age. Currently, information regarding a death caused by a disease such as AIDS or Hepatitis, a drug overdose, by means of suicide, or other information that is deemed highly sensitive, is available to any member of the public upon request.
The Department recommends that information related to the cause and manner of death, and injury, be available only to family members and others who can demonstrate a legitimate interest. Others would be able to get a death certificate, but with the cause and manner of death information redacted. Connecticut is one of only a handful of states that allow unrestricted access to death records. The Department notes that issuing a Certification of Death in Connecticut with redacted information would require a local registrar to manually complete the document every time it is requested. Thus, the additional time and labor used to complete these documents will incur costs for both the State and local registrars.
Representative Mitch Bolinsky: This bill was inspired in the aftermath of the December 14, 2012 atrocities in my home town of Newtown. The intent is to provide privacy to protect families following the death of a child by limiting full-detail disclosure of selected public records, namely, Death Certificates, by statutory revision. Family members and legal or probate personnel will still have access to these records. Beyond those parties mentioned, release of burial site information, cause of death and person(s) identifying the deceased, should be left to the discretion of next of kin as is the case for release of birth records.
Public access to the deceased information should be confirmable by name and date of death. Access to certified copies of “long-form” death certificates should be restricted to only those who legally and responsibly require them.
Representative Dan Carter: On the heels of the terrible tragedy in Newtown we are faced with many issues. While we as a legislature have focused our efforts on finding answers and crafting a legislative response to protect our children in the future, the town clerks in Newtown have focused their efforts on protecting the victims' families of the shooting by protecting the release of information contained in the death certificates that will be used to fuel the media circus in Newtown.
We should protect some of the information contained on death certificates, especially for minors. This will help decrease identity theft and prevent the media from exploiting such tragedies.
Approved “short forms” should be used to provide information to the public. This suggestion is based on discussions with town clerks who currently use this form. Another option could be for the media to contact the Medical Examiner's office for the copy of the death certificate before it has the sensitive information; as long as it doesn't create an undue burden on the Medical Examiner's office.
Colleen M. Murphy, Executive Director and General Counsel and Mary Schwind, Managing Director and Associate General Counsel, Freedom of Information Commission (FOIC): The FOIC is sympathetic to the desire to protect families of deceased minors. However, the Commission notes that the most sensitive information surrounding a minor's death, or any death, is already exempt from mandatory disclosure. For example, the most explicit and/or graphic medical information surrounding a death is located not in death certificates, but in autopsy reports. Autopsy reports are by and large unavailable to the general public. The legislature has already provided that information on death certificates not be available to the general public, pursuant to CGS Sec. 7-51a(c) for all deaths occurring after July 1, 1997.
Beyond these general comments, the FOIC is concerned about the subject nature of the proposed statutory language. It would undoubtedly lead to differing results depending on which public official is charged with making the determination. The discretionary aspect of the proposed bill could lead to abuse of that discretion in the future. The FOIC notes that even in situations where the death of a child occurs while the victim is in state custody and under the protective mantle of the state – a governmental failure of the most fundamental kind –there would be no access to the basic information described above for all time under the proposed language. The minimal information currently available on death certificates should remain open to the public.
NATURE AND SOURCES OF SUPPORT:
Aileen Nosal, Assistant Town Clerk and Assistant Registrar of Vital Statistics for the Town of Newtown: In the Town Clerks office we have 26 death certificates due to the tragedy in Newtown. Shortly after taking these death certificates we began receiving requests from the media to obtain copies. Normally, requests come from family members or funeral homes. We never have had requests from the media. Yet, according to current law, these death certificates are public information.
The proposed bill suggests restricting access to a copy of the death certificate for children under eighteen years of age when the disclosure of the death certificate is likely to cause undue hardship for the family of the child. I'm asking that this bill be amended to prevent the death certificates of all deceased individuals from being accessible by anyone but family at any time. Limiting the availability of a death certificate to only the necessary parties is imperative.
Renee Weimann, Assistant Town Clerk of Vital Statistics for the Town of Newtown: It is my responsibility to maintain all birth, death and marriage certificates in an orderly and confidential manner. Since the tragedy in Newtown, I've been adamant about keeping the death records for those victims unavailable to the public, especially the press.
The media can be an incessant faction in their pursuit of information. In order to protect the sensitive information such as where the deceased is buried and the cause of death, I strongly urge the support and passage of this bill. I feel it is our responsibility to permanently amend the current statute so that death records are not open to public inspection.
Joyce P. Mascena, MMC, MCTC, Glastonbury Town Clerk and President of the Connecticut Town Clerks Association, Inc.: The Association supports the concept of this bill to protect the privacy of families following the death of a child but recommends that the proposal be amended so that it can be properly managed.
The Association recommends we take a closer look at HB 6157 AAC Personally Identifying Information on Certifications of Marriage and Death, which would provide the protection that this bill (H.B. 5733) and a similar one (H.B. 5421) are attempting to provide while ensuring appropriate access to vital records by allowing only certain information be disclosed to the general public.
Monica Duhancik: Supports the restriction of public access to all death records, especially minors. Access should only be for immediately family. This restriction request is out of respect to the privacy of family members related to the deceased.
Philip Carroll: Supports the bill.
Bernard & Sarah Findley: Support the bill.
Katherine & Robert Geckle: Support the bill.
Kevin Fitzgerald: Supports the bill.
Richard Giannettino: Supports the bill.
Kim Haywood: Supports the bill.
Beth Hegarty: Supports the bill.
Mary Ann Jacob: Supports the bill.
Michelle Embree Ku: Supports the bill.
Liz Lucas: Supports the bill.
Kathryn Mayer: Supports the bill.
Barbara O'Connor: Supports the bill.
Richard Sturdevant: Supports the bill.
NATURE AND SOURCES OF OPPOSITION:
Claude Albert, Legislative Chair of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information: While we certainly sympathize with the sentiment expressed in this proposal, we would urge the legislature to be reluctant to seal death certificates. These most fundamental of official records have always been available to the public. Death certificates specify the time, place and cause of death. They do not, however, include detailed or graphic medical information. We believe the limited information now available on death certificates should remain public.
The bill creates a vague standard for when a death certificate may be withheld, and makes a myriad of public officials responsible for individually determining when that standard has been met. It gives no time frame for expiration of the restriction on access, and it makes no provision for the cases of children who die in state custody, which must be subject to close public scrutiny. The proposal fails to consider whether different family members might have different privacy interest in some cases.
Linda Carlson, Genealogist: As a genealogist, I would like to request that rather than permanently sealing all children's death certificates, that you make a onetime law sealing the death certificates of the Newtown victims for a period of time, say 25 – 50 years, and do not seal all children's death certificates. At the very least, if you must involve all children, limit the time to 25 years.
Rita Dieck: Is concerned about the proposed action to limit access to vital records.
Beatrice Morgan: Suggests that we consider a date of accessibility as there is for the records of the U.S. census; still allowing those records of ancestral interest to be available for research.
Reported by: Rosa DeJesus
Date: April 16, 2013