By Steve Key
Rita Ward of Evansville has been examining causes of death of people in Vanderburgh County for years.
It’s not been hard because the Evansville Courier & Press has been running that information in its “On the Record” section every Sunday for years.
The newspaper’s website also has been archiving the information since 2002.
But now the Evansville-Vanderburgh County Health Department has declared that causes of death will no longer be made available to the public.
They did it by simply ending a practice that predates 1975.
Apparently, the department quit keeping copies of the certificate of death required under IC 16-37-3-3.
The person in charge of a body’s internment must file this record with the county health officer.
That individual presents the form to the physician last in attendance upon the deceased. The doctor certifies the cause of death on this form.
County health departments are required to forward this form to the state Department of Health.
When HSPA last checked years ago, about two-thirds of Indiana county health departments maintained copies of these records for their own use, though there is no such requirement in law.
The records once received by the state health department are confidential.
A lawsuit involving Evansville Printing Corp., which produced the Courier and the Press when they were separate newspapers, and the Evansville-Vanderburgh County Department of Health ended with a 1975 Indiana Court of Appeals decision that ruled the records should be made available for inspection and copying if requested at the county health department level.
So causes of death in Vanderburgh County have been public for decades.
Ward can use the information to monitor the number of cancer deaths as part of her anti-tobacco use efforts.
Genealogists have been transferring the information to a website, browning
genealogy.org, which honors the late Charles Browning’s family, according to Evansville newspaper editor Tim Ethridge.
So why change its policy now?
Ward says Dr. Ray Nicholson, the county health officer, told her that the health department had received several complaints related to the newspaper publication of causes of death, so the decision was made so the newspaper would no longer have access.
In a column written by Ethridge, the editor says Joe Harrison, the county’s attorney, said the change was made to cut costs.
I tend to think Nicholson’s comment to Ward is probably the more likely of the two explanations.
That’s based on my experience with the organization that represented county health officials in the 1990s that opposed an HSPA effort to have cause of death information disclosable by the state health department.
The argument made at the time – I swear it’s true – was that without secrecy county health doctors might not put the actual cause of death in the official records due to pressure from or compassion for families of the deceased.
In other words, they needed secrecy or they wouldn’t put the truth down on paper.
The losers are the citizens of Vanderburgh County. A neighborhood group wants to chart the number of cancer deaths to determine whether there’s a cancer cluster downstream of where a processing plant discharges its effluent – sorry, you’re out of luck.
Child advocates want to see if there is any trend among childhood deaths – sorry, the county’s saving money.
Environmentalists want to see if there is any link between cancer and potential water table contamination – sorry, the hurt feelings of some family members were a bigger issue.
Every other county health department can easily replicate the process used by Vanderburgh County’s health department to block causes of death from the press and the public.
Check the status of access in your county’s certificates of death under IC 16-37-3-3.
Steve Key is executive director and general counsel for HSPA.