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A Public Death: Six Ways Reporters Can Make the Case for Death Record Access

A Public Death: Six Ways Reporters Can Make the Case for Death Record Access

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How can reporters make the case that death certificates and autopsies should be public records in every county and every state? I . Now I suggest we do the following:

1. Get to know the laws in your area. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has a breakdown of publicly available records on its website in its . You can look up records laws by state or and see what state statutes say.

2. For states that allow access to death certificates but not autopsies. In those states, reporters should obtain a copy of a death certificate relevant to a story and then request a copy of the autopsy, noting to the agency involved that other states allow access to autopsies. Part of the barrier to access stems from agencies not being asked. I talked with public officials in Vermont, and they said they can’t remember the last time someone asked to see an autopsy record. When I did ask for an autopsy, they first said they couldn’t provide one because of HIPAA and then, after being pressed about the applicability of HIPAA, they said that, actually, it was state law that prevented them from releasing the autopsy. Clearly, it’s a bureaucratic culture of “deny first” and “justify later” that needs to be changed. I think a well-worded letter from Association of Health Care Journalists and a little pressure from reporters would go a long way toward changing that culture.

3. For states that allow access to autopsies but not death certificates. In those states, reporters should obtain a copy of an autopsy relevant to a story and then request an informational copy of the death certificate, noting to the agency involved that other states allow access to death certificates. For example, in Oregon, death certificates , and one could make the case for access to the death certificate of the late , one of the most popular public figures in the state.

4. For states that bar access to both death certificates and autopsies. I have asked the AHCJ’s Right To Know Committee to help by sending letters to these states asking them to change their guidelines for public access and to provide some of the examples from this memo and other examples we have gathered during the project. We also could follow up with letters and/or calls to agencies that have blocked access to reporters.

5. Write about the records request experience. If you send me what you did and the response you received, I’ll post it. Send me letters, emails, video of sleepy desk minders telling you to take a number.

6. Identify public records champions. If you know state legislators or county officials who have a track record of promoting patient safety or public access to information, we can send them your experiences with my recommendations for policy action.

Antidote already has started some momentum, and I think we could generate a huge amount of interest and actually do some good if the AHCJ Right To Know Committee took it on. We could change public perception, improve public safety and save lives. 

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I read your article that you wrote on Eisenhower Medical Center in July '07 exposing the hospital to some of their wrong doings and how they treat their staff. I recently filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. I'll briefly explain: According the EEOC and based on my complaints, EMC has violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by forcing me to take my maternity leave earlier than necessary. They refused to accomodate me by giving me lighter duty assignments. The pregnancy act of 1978 was violated. I'd be willing to give you more details and would love if my situation could be posted in the newspaper. I'd love for this hospital and other hospitals that are using this practice to be exposed that this is illegal. Pregnant women have rights. Please me for further information. Thank You
April Pilet
[email protected]

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