By Patricia W. Potrzebowski, Ph.D.
Dr. Potrzebowski is the Executive Director of NAPHSIS—the National Association of Public Health Statistics and Information Systems. For six years, CRD Associates’ Senior Vice President Emily Holubowich has represented NAPHSIS in the nation’s capital, providing both government relations and strategic communications services.
On March 15, CBS News’ 60 Minutes aired a segment on the fatal flaws of the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) Death Master File (DMF) and the dire consequences of inadequate and inaccurate death reporting. In “Dead or Alive,” correspondent Scott Pelley spoke with several “deceased” individuals—or at least those that SSA has incorrectly identified as deceased on the DMF—as well as a woman, now convicted of fraud, who continued to receive benefits payments after her mother had died.
Most importantly for the vital records community, Pelley explained the states’ responsibilities for death records and made a strong case for the funding needed to support the transition from manual to fully electronic death registration systems.
Reporting from the State of Alabama Vital Records Office, Pelley noted:
God may judge the quick and the dead but it's the states that collect the data. They pass it along to Social Security and there is plenty of room for error. Record bureaus get death notices from doctors, hospitals, funeral homes or families. And every state has its own rules. Perhaps because the dead don't vote, many of the states don't spend much keeping tabs on them.
This is the State of Alabama Vital Records Vault. It is a place so secure that you need a key and a fingerprint to get inside. But once in here, the technology becomes pretty 19th century…Now, the State of Alabama is moving toward an electronic system. And it's about 60 percent of the way there. But there's so little funding around the country for that kind of transition that there are about a dozen states in America that do not have a statewide electronic filing system for death records.
I was interviewed for the segment in November 2014 and I have continued to respond to inquiries from the show’s producers, providing background on the jurisdictions’ legal responsibilities for vital records, the process for registering deaths (both paper and electronic), and the ongoing needs of the vital statistics infrastructure. In addition, registrars from Alabama and New York City were visited by the show’s producers on background to share their state-specific experience.
As would be expected when distilling a highly complex and technical issue for a mass audience, the segment was not without its flaws. Patrick O’Carroll, Director of the SSA Office of Inspector General blamed DMF inaccuracies on the states’ manual registration of deaths (not true!), instead of the unofficial reports to SSA by funeral directors and family members. The piece also could have gone further to emphasize that official death records from states are the “gold standard,” whether they are collected manually or electronically, and that state records provided to SSA are not released to the public because of state right to privacy laws.
On the whole, however, “Dead or Alive” will significantly increase awareness about the unreliability and incompleteness of the DMF and the importance of sustained investment in the vital records infrastructure. The first step in convincing elected officials about the importance of an issue is to convince their constituents. With more than 10 million viewers weekly, 60 Minutes has provided us new ammunition in our fight on behalf of vital records jurisdictions in the nation’s capital.
To view the segment and review the transcript, click here.