Health department responds to FOX59’s investigation into death certificate delays

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. (March 13, 2015)-- The State Department of Health is responding to a FOX59 investigation into painful delays some Hoosier families face when trying to get a death certificate signed for their loved one. Some blame Indiana's fairly new online death registration system, calling it "inefficient" and "cumbersome."

As FOX59 reported this week, Hoosiers like Randy Stokes were forced to wait weeks before being able to give peace to their loved ones.

Stokes' brother passed away at Eskenazi Hospital in January. It took him 3 1/2 weeks of repeated calls before he was finally able to get the death certificate signed and cremate his brother.

“He had to just lay there in that freezer,” he said. “The excuse that they kept giving me was, the doctor wasn’t registered with the state of Indiana to sign the death certificate.”

By law, all Indiana physicians must be registered with the Indiana Death Registration System. It was rolled out by the State Department of Health in 2009 to reduce the wait time from 21 days to seven days and make the process more efficient.

However, some say the process has only been made more difficult.

“We’re seeing two to three month delays in getting the death certificate signed. And that should be done within a seven day period," complained Mike Moffitt, Director of Funeral Operations for Leppert Mortuary and Crown Hill. “It’s not efficient at all. And this system was put in place to be efficient. And it hasn’t turned out that way.”

He said certain physicians are also to blame; coming up with all sorts of reasons not to sign.

“Doctors could be on vacation for an extended period of time. Or the doctor decides they’re not going to sign the death certificate because they’re not familiar with the patient’s medical history.”

And sometimes, physicians just don't want their name associated with the death in fear of malpractice lawsuits down the road.

Unsigned death certificates often wind up at the Marion County Coroner's Office. As FOX59 uncovered this week, that is adding onto the workload and creating a backlog.

"We’ve seen an increase of probably about 20 percent to 30 percent of cases that we are reviewing that have not actually been coroner cases," said Chief Deputy Coroner Alfarena Ballew.

She said she hears physicians express fears about litigation and believes there needs to be more education to address those concerns. She's even willing to help doctors through the process of determining a cause of death.

"I can understand the fear that doctors have, but we also let them know that we will be supportive of them in any way necessary to sort of prevent any unnecessary litigation."

FOX59 made repeated requests for a sit-down interview with the Director of the State Department of Health to address concerns about the online death registration system. Our requests were repeatedly denied.

Instead, department spokesman Kenneth Severson sent us a statement which doesn't address the online system at all:

"When the Indiana State Department of Health is notified of a death certificate signing issue, we will continue our practice of letting the Medical Licensing Board know of any doctors who either don’t sign a death certificate or surpass the five day time frame that Indiana law gives them to fulfill their statutory requirement to certify a death certificate."

Families and funeral homes can lodge a complaint to the Medical Licensing Board.

A spokesman for the Indiana Professional Licensing Agency, which oversees the Medical Licensing Board wrote:

"The board has the statutory authority to investigate the matter and assess a civil penalty of up to one thousand dollars against a licensed physician who fails to perform duties required for issuing birth or death certificates.”

FOX59 reached out to Eskenazi Hospital about Stokes' complaints.  A spokesman said he could not comment, because of patient privacy laws. However, he added that it is important to Eskenazi and that the hospital is constantly educating and working with its physicians to get death certificates signed as quickly as possible.