- Associated Press - Monday, December 1, 2014

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - The method by which death certificates are assembled and preserved in North Carolina is really getting old.

Officially registering a death essentially follows the same format used since the state’s Vital Records office began to collect information in 1930; it’s all done on paper. Records ultimately are stored on microfilm, an aging technology.

Three months can pass before the state officially records a death, and processing copy requests can take eight weeks. All of this can make it harder for relatives to settle estates and other end-of-life matters.

State Registrar Catherine Ryan and Department of Health and Human Services officials came to a General Assembly oversight committee in November seeking support - perhaps money later - to build a new electronic death registration system.

“It is very cumbersome to register 83,000 deaths each year with a manual process,” Ryan told lawmakers. “This entire death registration process is very outdated and needs reengineering.”

North Carolina’s paperless birth reporting system came online in 2010, recording 120,341 births last year. But North Carolina is one of six states without an electronic death registration system, according to a presentation to the committee.

The process begins with a form, filled out by a funeral director, sometimes with a typewriter or by hand, before being taken or mailed to a physician to sign. A trip to the local health department is next. Certificates there are then mailed to Raleigh - two batches received a month - with more manual work ahead before they’re officially recorded, Ryan said.

The process “is very labor intensive,” said Cathleen Blanchard with Moore Funeral Home of Brevard and president of the North Carolina Funeral Directors Association. She has a computer program to input death information, but the document still must be printed out.

“Anything that makes serving our families more quickly and more efficiently would be welcomed,” Blanchard said.

An electronic system would move the process through funeral and health professionals and record-keepers without paper, accelerating the registration process to seven days or less, Ryan said. She said it also would reduce the potential for errors, secure personal information better and help identify medical threats sooner with real-time data.

Ryan said the data would be provided to state agencies that need the information - the Department of Revenue and the Board of Elections, for example. The state also could save or collect $240,000 annually from the federal government, which receives state death data.

DHHS recommended a three-year, $5.9 million plan to develop a system that would need $427,000 annually to operate. No vendor or product has been picked.

Lawmakers on the DHHS oversight committee supported the change in principle, but some have become suspicious about information technology projects after others have blown their budgets and delivered less than promised.

“While I’m not satisfied that this is the right way to proceed, I do concede that we need to study this and figure out what we’re going to do,” said Sen. Tamara Barringer, R-Wake.

Others were unhappy Ryan didn’t detail how the Vital Records Office would digitize all the archived death certificates on microfilm. Ryan and Reese Edgington, a DHHS project management director, said about $140,000 could be redirected to scan records.

“I would certainly think that we would put a little more thought into two or three people doing 100 years’ worth of records,” Sen. Don Davis, D-Greene, said. The electronic birth registration system contains records only since 1971, leaving behind records dating to 1913.

Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration will decide whether to put the project in his state budget request to legislators early next year. Department Secretary Dr. Aldona Wos said the Vital Records office has been neglected in the past. The legislature gave it $350,000 more this year to meet increasing demands of issuing certificates and managing historical records.

“Citizens have a right to have a birth certificate and a death certificate within a reasonable amount of time,” Wos said.


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