Coroners urge digital processing of death certificates

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Zachary Oren Smith, Mississippi Today

Coroners Sharon Grisham-Stewart of Hinds County, Ricky Shivers of Yazoo County and David Ruth of Rankin County (left to right)

Three coroners and representatives from the Office of the State Medical Examiner urged legislators Tuesday to mandate that coroners statewide use a soon-to-launch electronic death certificate system.

Their plea came in testimony to the Senate’s Judiciary B committee about the long web of paperwork that holds each death certificate from being released to the deceased’s next of kin.

Because the system had not yet be implemented by the Office of the State Medical Examiner yet, they asked that mandate be delivered during next year’s legislative session.

Sharon Grisham-Stewart, corner of Hinds County, said, “We have to issue about 115 death certificates each month.” With so many to issue, Grisham-Stewart said she has to work hard just to keep up.

Most of Mississippi’s county coroners do not deal with that volume, in fact, many are part-time. Coroners are paid a fee for every certificate they complete. Many work other jobs to supplement the fees they receive.

With counties likes Hinds suffering from an overload of calls while smaller population counties’ coroners having to split their time, the current process of paper documents makes receiving death certificates a longer process.

As it stands now, in Mississippi’s 82 counties, the elected corner is notified that a person has died. The coroner — weekend or no, day or night and even on holidays — goes to the scene and determines the person’s name, the time of death, the cause of death and then certifies with their signature.

Providing that an autopsy or toxicology work isn’t necessary to determine the cause of death, the paperwork is sent to the funeral home where genealogical information is recorded. A form with similar information is then sent to the State Medical Examiner’s office.

Zachary Oren Smith, Mississippi Today

Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory

Already in the process, it has sometimes taken days for mail handlers to relay these forms from place to place.

And once reaching the Medical Examiner’s office, the coroners explained that anything from the wrong terminology in the cause of death to the use of blue pen could cause the office to send the form back to the coroner for not meeting the necessary standard.

Sam Howell, director of the state’s Crime Lab explained, “Recently we were contacted by the state about our outstanding death certificates. We have three doctors doing the work of 12. We have had two doctors leave and three technicians because they were underpaid and overworked.”

Without a death certificate, the next of kin of the deceased may not be able to access their life insurance or make decisions about their property or stocks. In some cases, a “pending” death certificate can be filed, but even then, some banks and insurance companies will not accept anything but the final death certificate.

Soon, according to Director of Vital Records Judy Moulder the death certificate process will be going digital. While currently everything is done on paper and requires days for transit, an electronic process would make this instantaneous.

“We’ve been working on electronic death registration which will allow all the people involved (corner, funeral home and state medical examiner) to do their part of the process simultaneously,” Moulder said.

But implementation could prove to be a large undertaking.

“For it to work, everyone has to be electronic,” Moulder said. “That means the funeral home, the hospital and the corner all have to be using the system or else they will use paper, which is what the system is supposed to avoid.”

Moulder said that currently her agency is working on a contractor to train state coroners on the system. She said, “Basically it’s just rolling it out.”

It was clear that with the electronic system not yet implemented, the legislators they were speaking before could not do much this session. But each coroner said that requiring the use of the system statewide, perhaps next session, would go a long way for the coroners and State Medical Examiner’s Office alike.

The need for efficiency was not lost on the committee’s chairman.

“If you read Agatha Christie,” said Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, waxing poetic, “we solve mysteries not just to convict the guilty but to remove the cloud of suspicion.”

  • Phil Swan

    Can the county coroner sign the death certificate and issue it without the signature of a M.D?