GREENFIELD — The county health department has asked a lawyer to draft a records-release policy to better train employees on access laws after the Daily Reporter raised concerns about having been denied public records.
The Hancock County Health Department, which employs eight staff members, maintains a variety of public documents, including birth and death certificates. Office manager Crystal Baker told members of the county’s health board this week the department has run into several issues with records requests in recent weeks, calling the state access law confusing.
Baker’s discussion with the board follows an inquiry from the Daily Reporter. Health department staffers earlier this month declined to release copies of death certificates listing the decedents’ cause of death, which are public record. Staff members provided only redacted copies, with the cause of death and contributing factors marked out.
Baker, who released the documents after receiving notice from the Daily Reporter, told the Hancock County Board of Health the department needs a policy that spells out for staffers who has access to which death-related records.
“There’s lots of gray areas,” she told the board. “We just really need to work on clarifying it … and make sure we’re following what we need to follow.”
She’s told the seven-member board she’ll draft a document that details what information can be given to public, then review the policy with board attorney Gregg Morelock. This will, she said, ensure all department staffers are trained on public access law — a measure the department hadn’t taken previously.
Once the final draft is complete, Baker will bring the policy before the board for its consideration and approval, chairman Jim Bever said.
The board, which meets quarterly, has not looked at the health department’s records-release policies in at least six years, he added.
State law doesn’t require government employees to undergo training on public-access law. Still, it’s important for officeholders to know what’s required of their offices, said Gerry Lanosga, a member of the board of directors for the Indiana Coalition of Open Government.
The law doesn’t change often; but when it does, the information should be passed along, ensuring no member of the public walks away from a government office without information they are entitled to receive, Lanosga said.
“It’s incumbent on local and state agencies to make sure their employees are trained, so that they aren’t inadvertently overlooking these policies,” he said.
The public release of a person’s cause of death has been the subject of debate statewide, said Steve Key, general counsel for the Hoosier State Press Association, of which the Daily Reporter is a member.
Three years ago, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled death certificates may not be withheld from the public.
The lawsuit, first filed jointly in 2012 by the Evansville Courier & Press and Vanderburgh County resident Rita Ward accused the county’s health department of unlawfully refusing to release a person’s cause of death.
Both a local judge and the state’s appellate court ruled in favor of the health department, saying a private citizen has no “direct interest in the matter or the information,” the Supreme Court ruling states.
But the state’s highest court unanimously disagreed, saying “the public interest outweighs the private,” Supreme Court Justice Mark Massa wrote.
“In our society, death is an intimate and personal matter,” Massa wrote. “We recognize that public disclosure of the details of a decedent’s death may cause pain to family and friends. We are also mindful of the importance of open and transparent government.”
Release of such records has practical applications, Key said. Tracking causes of death can teach government officials, doctors, researchers and residents more about a community, he said.
If there is rash of drug-related deaths, local leaders may use the records as proof of the need for increased enforcement or additional addiction services, he cited as an example.
State statutes list three kinds of documents that must be filed with county and state health departments when a person dies — and not all those documents are open to the public, Key said.
That’s what led to confusion among staff members fielding requests for information, Baker told the health board.
A record of death, or a permanent record, acts as a registry, listing the names of all those who have died. It is public but does not include cause of death, Key said.
A certification of death lists the cause as well as other personal information, including social security numbers and medical diagnoses. It is available only to family members and those who can prove they have “a direct interest,” such as an insurance company.
A death certificate, filed with the health department by doctors, coroners or funeral directors, lists public information including a cause of death and any contributing factors.
The local health department is committed to making sure members of the public receive what they are due, Baker said.
The department “holds in high regard the data available on birth and death certificates,” Baker wrote in a statement to the Daily Reporter, adding the new policy will ensure “all members of the public receive the same level of service and proper information when requesting these vital records.”
Baker’s plan to draft a policy has the county health board’s support.
It’s always worthwhile for government entities to review and update policies, laying out clearer guidelines when needed, Bever said.
County attorney Ray Richardson, an expert on Indiana’s public-access laws, said he gets questions from public officeholders at least once a month about records requests.
Richardson does not represent the county health department or board, which are overseen by the Indiana State Department of Health.
Richardson said, as a general rule, he tells county officeholders to give information to residents unless the official can point to a specific statute barring its release. Such openness is important so citizens can understand how their governments operate, he said.
Lanosga encouraged residents to read up on public-access laws before requesting a document, saying “it’s the responsibility of the people to put emphasis on officials” to release what courts have deemed public record.
“The Supreme Court made it clear, but there’s no way to ensure that filters down,” he said.