The recording and maintenance of vital records, including information pertaining to deaths within a jurisdiction, has long been a cornerstone responsibility of health departments. Implementation of new state laws to modernize vital record systems raises significant questions about how information must be reported, compiled, stored, and disclosed at both the local and state level, as well as the costs incurred by health departments to meet these new standards.
Such concerns are central to the October 2014 Indiana Supreme Court decision Evansville Courier & Press and Rita Ward v. Vanderburgh County Health Department. At issue in the case was whether, under the state’s Access to Public Records Act (APRA), local health departments (LHDs) must make available for public access the certificates of death filed in their districts. In its decision, the court remarked on both the importance of death records in assessing population health trends and the role of the legislature in weighing public interests in disclosure versus privacy concerns of families with respect to death records.
This issue brief examines the Evansville Courier & Press decision, its impact on Indiana LHD vital records practices, and the value of Certificates of Death as a public record and source of public health data. The brief also considers other challenges associated with death records, including research showing inaccuracies and other deficiencies in cause-of-death data as well as administrative and fiscal burdens on underfunded LHD systems.