Other voices: Bring death records into the computer age

Published 7:55 pm Saturday, December 6, 2014

Star-News, Wilmington

In the year 2014, there is no excuse for North Carolina’s system for recording deaths to be stuck in the past.

Abundant and easily accessible technology should make it easier, but the state Vital Records office is still working with a paper-heavy process that dates back to 1930. It took until 2010 for North Carolina to switch to an electronic system for birth records, and now it is time to update the antiquated death-records system.

State Registrar Catherine Ryan is among officials who brought the technology void to a committee of state lawmakers. Now it’s their turn to act.

This is no small issue. With 83,000 deaths per year, a system that is dependent on paper is labor-intensive and creates another layer of bureaucracy for grieving families to have to go through as they close out the estate of a loved one.

According to the Associated Press, it can take three months for a death to be recorded by the Vital Records office. That can delay some estate matters, but it also may take longer for state health officials to receive cause-of-death information that is important in analyzing epidemics or identifying health patterns.

The need for this information also comes into play in other areas, such as enabling boards of election to delete deceased voters from the rolls in a more timely manner. The presence of dead voters on the rolls was cited during debates over new restrictions on voting. Ensuring that voter rolls are accurate is the first and most important step in reducing the potential for fraud.

The Department of Revenue also needs up-to-date information when it comes to processing tax forms. Computers have changed the way most of us do business, but when it comes to recording deaths in North Carolina, it’s all paper and snail mail until it is entered in the state’s vital records computer system. 

State Department of Health and Human Services officials admit it will be costly to modernize the system — about $5.8 million, plus $427,000 a year to operate it — but it also could save labor and mailing costs, as well as provide more timely information to families and government agencies that need up-to-date death records. They estimate they’d save about $240,000 a year.

Some lawmakers have rightly expressed concerns about the installation of yet another DHHS computer system. … But this is the 21st century. Most other states already use an electronic system for recording deaths. North Carolina needs to leave the 20th century behind, because it does its people a disservice by using an outdated process.