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.
Chief of Investigations
Department of Coroner
Los Angeles County