And one step back…

“Model” Vital Statistics Act

Records access for genealogists always seems to be a “one-step-forward-and-one-step-back” situation. Yesterday The Legal Genealogist reported the news of a big step forward, with a change in a federal privacy rule so that health records won’t be sealed forever even generations after the death of the patient.1 And today we’re dealing with the threat of a big step back.

Tomorrow, the Oregon House of Representatives Health Care Committee will hold a public hearing on House Bill 2093, a bill that says it’s merely to “Make… changes to provisions of law related to vital statistics to reflect 2011 Revision to Model State Vital Statistics Act.”2

Buried deep within the many many paragraphs of House Bill 2093 is a provision that would substantially lengthen the time during which access to basic vital records — births, marriages, divorces and deaths — would be denied to researchers in Oregon.

Right now, Oregon law makes birth records public records 100 years after the date of birth and it makes death, marriage and divorce records public 50 years after the date of those events.3 The proposal would change that to deny birth records for 125 years, death records for 75 years and marriage or divorce records for 100 years.

But hey… not to worry, right? This is all in accordance with the “2011 Revision to Model State Vital Statistics Act,” right?

The problem is, there isn’t any official “2011 Revision to Model State Vital Statistics Act” that has the approval of any official body of government. Instead, the bill is part of a move being driven by a vital statistics advisory panel that hasn’t even allowed public comment on its proposal.

Here’s the story.

Since late in the 19th century, there have been moves towards standardizing the reporting of vital statistics throughout the United States.4 It’s a good way to get a handle on a lot of issues, such as fetal and maternal death rates, population growth and more.

Over the years, we’ve gone from a recommended standard death form to recommended forms for live births, deaths, marriages, divorces, fetal deaths and more, and from the first model Act for the states in 1907 to 1992, when the federal Centers for Disease Control in conjunction with state registrars of vital statistics last developed a Model State Vital Statistics Act.5

Now obviously a lot has changed since 1992. We’re in an electronic age the likes of which few people could have anticipated at that time. So a working group consisting of “seven state/local vital statistics executives and one former chief counsel of a local health department” began looking at a revision of the act starting back in 2009 for an advisory group called the National Association for Public Health Statistics and Information Systems (NAPHSIS).6

That small working group consulted with “all State vital statistics officials and from other interested stakeholders in an effort to determine those areas that needed review and revision”7 — but never sought input from the genealogical community or the public.8

After getting comments from its own private group of reviewers, the working group developed a draft Model Law that was “presented to the states for comment in December 2010 and 6 webinars to provide additional background on proposed changes were held in January 2011. Over 200 comments were received from states and each individual comment was reviewed at the working group’s March meeting, resulting in numerous changes.”9 Note the lack of even a hint of public comment being solicited.

And then in June 2011, NAPHSIS endorsed the proposal. That’s it. No CDC approval. No public review. No comments from anyone outside of the NAPHSIS world. In other words, no official “2011 Revision of the Model State Vital Statistics Act and Regulations” that we all need to defer to.

Yet it’s that privately-considered-privately-developed proposal that’s behind the move in Oregon and elsewhere to close off access to vital records for these long periods, ostensibly to be in keeping with “the increased expectation by the public of protection of medical information as a result of the Health Information Portability and Accountability Act of 1996.”10

Yeah. You got it. That’s the same Health Information Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 that now has regulations that open records 50 years after the patient’s death that we reported on yesterday.

Sigh…

We know that the Oregon genealogical community is well aware of this legislation and is prepared to address the House Health Care Committee tomorrow. We can only hope that the Committee listens, and understands that this “2011 Revision to Model State Vital Statistics Act” is no such thing. It’s one group’s unofficial recommendation adopted without public comment and without consideration of the impact and effects.

Oregon doesn’t have to follow the NAPHSIS lead. It shouldn’t do so. And it particularly shouldn’t do so in light of the total absence of public input to the proposal.


 
SOURCES

  1. Judy G. Russell, “Breakthrough for medical genealogy,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 8 Apr 2013 (http://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 9 Apr 2013).
  2. Oregon House Bill 2093, html version, Sunlight Foundation, OpenStates.org (http://openstates.org/ : accessed 8 Apr 2013).
  3. Oregon Revised Statutes 432.121.
  4. James A Weed, “Vital Statistics in the United States: Preparing for the Next Century,” Population Index 61(4): 527-539 (1995); html version, Population Index on the Web (http://popindex.princeton.edu/ : accessed 8 Apr 2013).
  5. The 1992 Model Act is available from the CDC website in PDF format at http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/misc/mvsact92b.pdf.
  6. National Association for Public Health Statistics and Information Systems (NAPHSIS), “2011 Revision of the Model State Vital Statistics Act and Regulations” (http://www.naphsis.org/ : accessed 8 Apr 2013).
  7. Ibid.
  8. See Fred Moss, “RPAC Alert — 2011 Revision of Model State Vital Statistics Act,” RPAC Blog, posted 12 Mar 2013 (http://www.fgs.org/rpac/ : accessed 8 Apr 2013).
  9. NAPHSIS, “2011 Revision of the Model State Vital Statistics Act and Regulations”.
  10. Ibid.
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4 Responses to And one step back…

  1. Mary Ann Thurmond says:

    As I read the 3rd paragraph of this blog, I thought, “Mein Gott!!! They’re going to LENGTHEN it!?!? Oregon already makes you wait 100 years to access birth records!!!”

    That fact was quickly remembered by my brain because I recently dealt with this problem. I think one of Tom’s ancestors had a child in Oregon which I’m trying to definitively place with the correct parents. The child lived only a short time, so I can find no other records for him/her. I want to respect this child by verifying it’s gender (given names Carroll Blessing) and the correct parents. But it will be several more years before I can access the record, and I realized at the time that, at my age, I may not live to see the record released!

    Why should we have to wait so long to get basic facts about our ancestors?? Why does our government hold this information so close to it’s vest?? When my brother-in-law died in Idaho some years ago, his wife was unable to get copies of his death certificate which are needed because she wasn’t considered next of kin!! Her son had to request them. What if she had no children?!?!

    Why is our government even involved in this?? Shouldn’t family interests come before government in these personal issues??

    Sorry. Just my rant of the day!

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      I hear you, and I’m with you. Most of these restrictions are — frankly — just plain silly.

  2. Dave says:

    This is as bad as all the laws and regulations promulgated by the Business Roundtable!

  3. John says:

    NAPHSIS is made up of the vital registrars of all 53 or so jurisdictions that issue such records. (NY City, DC etc and the States.) This organization has been around for a long time and carries a lot of weight because of their membership and the narrow range of their interests. NAPHSIS can say that they conferred with the states, because of their membership. They can move for their members, following the rules and procedures of their own jurisdictions, to adopt their recommendations and move the “state of the art” within their jurisdiction in synch with a planned path. The folks in NAPHSIS often represent state organizations that actually get little state funding but exist due to fees paid for records, so they are not intrinsically against genealogists. The more records they can sell, the better their bottom line. But the state legislators make those decisions, not the state registrars. Trying to have uniform vital records across the jurisdictions is a worthwhile goal, and that is their focus. Restricting access to records should be placed at the feet of the politicians who should be holding open hearings and meetings on their legislation.

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