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Pike resident, newspaper sue health department to access death records

A Pike County resident and the Evansville Courier Press are suing the Vanderburgh County Health Department to obtain access to cause of death information contained on death certificates maintained by the health department.

The newspaper and Rita Ward of Winslow, Ind., contend the death certificates are public records, while the health department interprets state law to require it to restrict access to them.

It’s information the newspaper had published on its public records page from 2002 until May when the health department suddenly stopped including death causes in the information it provided to the newspaper.

Ward said she was prompted to investigate what was behind the change when the newspaper stopped publishing death causes. She said she is interested because of the public health implications the information might reveal, such as possible links to smoking-related illnesses.

“I truly do believe printing the cause of death is important. I believe it is a great public tool that can help people,” she said. “Maybe a reader might see a neighbor who died of colon cancer and make the decision to have their first overdue colonoscopy. It can be a first step toward a change for the better. It can touch a reader. It’s personal. That’s why it is important.”

“This is information that is important to any community. It is important to the well-being of any community, and that is why I believe the health department collects that information,” said Jay Young, the newspaper’s investigative editor.

After the Courier Press quit publishing the information, Ward requested the records from the health department in writing but was denied it in a letter written by Joseph Harrison Jr., attorney for Vanderburgh County. In that letter, Harrison wrote the law requires the purchaser of a death certificate to have a direct interest in the matter.

Ward then filed a complaint with the Indiana Public Access Counselor, who gave a nonbinding opinion in her favor.

Public Access Counselor Joseph Hoage said the requirements in the law Harrison cited were made by the Legislature beginning in January 2011 and applied to the state’s death registration system.

However, he said Indiana law still requires local health departments to maintain records of the death certificates filed by physicians and make them available to the public.

Hoage based his opinion on a 1998 opinion from the Indiana Attorney General’s Office that said death certificates are public record. That opinion was based in part on a 1975 Indiana Court of Appeals decision upholding former Vanderburgh Circuit Court Judge William Miller’s decision in a 1973 case in which a reporter from the former Evansville Press sought a death record from the health department.

The Courier Press requested the death records again after Hoage gave his opinion but was denied by the health department. The lawsuit was then filed

At issue is which Indiana law governs its disclosure, whether the information is kept by the state or the county and whether the county is legally required to provide the information to the public.

Attorney Pat Shoulders, who represents the newspaper and Ward, argued the health department is confusing laws governing two different death records.

One is a death certificate, which Indiana law says physicians attending at a death must file with the local health department. The other is a certificate of death registration kept by the Indiana State Department of Health and which provides basic information about the deceased, including the cause.

Shoulders said the law requires local health departments to maintain copies of the death certificates and make them accessible to the public.

“It’s our position — and the position of the public access counselor — that those are public records,” he said. “We think the department of health, in good faith but wrongly, relied on statutes which deal with the certificate of death registration system which is maintained by the state department of health.”

Harrison declined to comment Wednesday regarding the litigation except to say the health department believes the newspaper and Ward are not entitled to the records under Indiana law and “hopefully, the Vanderburgh Circuit Court will feel the same way.”


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