Letter to the editor

I found the article regarding the Social Security Administration's interest in capturing death data, specifically the Social Security number from state death records interesting ["Electronic death records 'vital' at SSA"].

The Los Angeles County Department of Coroner, which investigates about one in every three deaths that occurs in the county, had been freely sharing data with the Social Security Administration regarding deaths under the jurisdiction of the coroner for many years. About two years ago, the "sharing" stopped. Actually, SSA stopped sharing.

They refuse to provide information about a deceased person's Social Security number, which could lead us to the legal next of kin so we could notify him or her of the person's death. Apparently, this violates the privacy rights of the living person, who is legally entitled to know of the death of his or her loved one.

For all intents and purposes, the Social Security number has become useless to us, a source of frustration and a point of anger for the families who are no longer notified as rapidly as before, if at all, because of this bizarre interpretation of a rule. Many families find out about the death of a loved one only after seeing the deceased person's name posted in the Social Security death index.

Sometimes the Social Security number is the best piece of information we have that can lead to more information about the legal next of kin. Not any more. The value has dropped to the point of virtual irrelevance.

If SSA is really interested in stopping the payment of benefits to those no longer entitled, they need to meet county coroners in the middle and be prepared to share data that meets the needs of both parties. We probably won't need the information in every case, but when we received it in the past, it was crucial to our success in notifying the legal next of kin. It was a win-win for SSA and for us.

Don't get me wrong; privacy laws do much good. However, privacy laws that are poorly drafted or poorly interpreted can ultimately do more harm than they were designed to prevent.

The ball is in their court.

Craig Harvey
Chief of Investigations
Operations Bureau
Department of Coroner
Los Angeles County

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