INDIANAPOLIS – The State of Indiana switched to a new online system to certify and issue death and birth certificates at the beginning of 2021.
The previous system had been in place for more than ten years, when the state moved from a paper-only system into an electronic death registry with an interface between doctors, health departments, funeral directors, and more.
However, days after the start of the year, funeral home directors and coroners are reporting a significant backlog due to the new system, which they said is impacting grieving Hoosiers.
According to Andy Clayton, a licensed Indiana funeral director and Executive Director of the Indiana Funeral Directors Association, there are significant delays in death certificates being certified and issued.
Part of the reason is, under the new system, the stakeholders, including doctors, nurse practitioners, and funeral directors, all must be registered. If they are not, there is no way for them to authorize a death certificate.
Clayton said this system, called DRIVE, or Database Registration of Indiana’s Vital Events, was originally set to begin more than a year and a half ago, so physicians and funeral directors had plenty of warning to register and become trained.
Right now, they are finding that many doctors have not registered, which is, in turn, causing delays in sign-offs on death certificates.
“I know there is progress and sometimes progress is painful, but the doctors and the funeral directors have been informed for over a year that this system was coming,” said David Stillinger, Hancock County Coroner and owner of Stillinger Family Funeral Home.
“It’s just frustrating when people don’t step up, get signed up and do what they’re supposed to do,” he said.
“You know what the doctors have been doing over the last 11 months,” said Clayton. “They’re caring for people and these administrative processes are going on outside the realm, it’s easy for them to slip through the cracks. They’re busy training people, keeping people alive, so I can understand some of the disconnect here late in the year.”
Other factors causing delays in death certificates, Clayton explained, include challenges of migrating the old system into the new one, and functionality and code issues associated with the system.
“Death certificates and much like birth certificates, they prove an identity of a person,” said Clayton.
In the State of Indiana, death certificates are administered on the county-level and require the signature of a physician or coroner.
“You have to have funeral directors imputing important information about the decedent; their name, age, date of birth, where they live,” said Clayton, “and then the physicians or coroners put the cause of death and that info is married at the local health department and certified copies of death are printed for the family.”
According to Clayton, the number of copies a family requests varies, with some people wanting one or two, others request dozens depending on the affairs of the person who died.
“We’re seeing issues of the system just not really working and the lag time at this point in time,” Stillinger explained.
Stillinger said he received his very first death certificate of the year for a family on Jan. 12, thirteen days after the previous online system shut down. DRIVE went live online on Jan. 4.
“Reality is, we’re in the middle of the pandemic. We have record death census numbers right now in Indiana on top of an already busy time of year funeral homes and death,” Clayton said. “It has gotten to near-catastrophic levels if we don’t get this figured out quick.”
One of the main reasons a family needs to obtain a death certificate is to settle affairs of their loved one, including funeral payments, settling an estate, and collecting insurance.
“When their loved ones go to settle their affairs of life, that they have that certified document from the state of Indiana that says, yes you can handle these affairs, this person is deceased,” Clayton said.
Another major problem is, without a death certificate, a person cannot be cremated in Indiana, per state law. A death certificate must be filed at the local county health department and accepted as ‘authentic’ and ‘good,’ according to Clayton, to proceed with cremation.
In the State of Indiana, there is a 48-hour period a funeral home must wait after a death certificate is signed, before a person can be cremated.
“When you cremate somebody, there’s no reversing the process. It’s final and DNA and evidence and what you have can be destroyed, so that’s why really that death certificate is important,” Clayton explained.
“The funeral home needing it as part of the cremation process, the other the family to settle the affairs of their loved one,” he said.
Both Stillinger and Clayton said with the pandemic, more people have been opting to choose cremation.
“Especially with COVID there’s been families that otherwise wouldn’t have chosen cremation and they’ve told us that, but they choose the cremation option,” said Stillinger.
“One in two Hoosiers is choosing to be cremated at death versus one out of 10, 12 years ago,” said Clayton. “That’s a big difference and puts a lot of stress on funeral homes because we’re charged with extended care of the deceased and we’re not the size of Lucas Oil Stadium.”
“We’re homes that have been converted, some built from scratch in a brick and mortar, and we have sacred, secure areas that we care for the dead, but they’re not meant to take on caseloads that are extended beyond normal time limits,” he explained.
With that in mind, Clayton said the state approved a ‘workaround’ for cases of cremation.
“If there is a death and the doctor isn’t registered yet in the drive system or the drive system isn’t functional, and it’s a natural causes death not under the jurisdiction of the coroner, we can call the coroner, who’s a non-biased elected official, public official, have them interview the doctor of record to have them ascertain they will sign a death certificate with a cause of death when presented,” he explained.
“With the COVID situation, along with the death certificate situation, the state has enacted a law or rule that allows the coroners to talk with the doctors and if it is a cremation situation, do an authorization for cremation based on the conversation with the doctor, or as of January first, nurse practitioners now can sign death certificates,” said Stillinger.
“We’ve been telling all of the nurse practitioners to get out there and get signed up because the doctors there’s such a backlog,” Stillinger said.
Both said they know the state is working hard to resolve issues, but hope the kinks are ironed out quickly before the backlog becomes too significant.
“The longer we go we’re gonna have a bigger backlog of trying to get death certificates done,” said Stillinger.
“I think that there’s more chance for errors and unfortunately, the families are the ones really that are gonna be having to deal with not having these because of financial things, and you know, moving forward if they have to sell property and those kinds of things, they just can’t.”
Clayton shared, “It’s a very serious situation. It’s being taken seriously at all levels of government and private enterprise collaborating with each other. I’m hopeful and I’m committed.”
“I have faith in the state they’ll get it done. I just don’t know how quickly,” Stillinger said.
The Indiana State Department of Health told FOX59, “Indiana has implemented a new vital records system called DRIVE, which uses a platform built and hosted by VitalChek, because the previous system was a decade old and no longer had the functionality required to meet the state’s needs. The new system offers greater security and functionality.”
They also wrote, “Any new system will have bugs that need to be worked out, and we are working daily with VitalChek to address issues as they are identified. We also have issued guidance to coroners, local health departments and funeral directors to ensure that they are able to move forward with funeral arrangements with families so that there are no delays.”
FOX59 also reached out to the Marion County Coroner’s office to see whether they were experiencing issues. Marion County Chief Deputy Coroner Alfie Ballew said the delays are mostly impacting families because they are unable to sign most death certificates.
Clayton also shared that two of Indiana’s largest funeral home providers, both located in Central Indiana, have a combined 200 death certificates awaiting certification as of Tuesday afternoon.