Seven states lag on death reporting

While most states are using nationwide electronic systems for their official reporting and records verification related to deaths, seven states are not, and it's having a detrimental effect on the Social Security Administration's efforts to thwart identity theft, according to testimony at a House subcommittee hearing on Feb. 2.

The other 43 states participate in either the Electronic Death Registration System or the Electronic Verification of Vital Events System, or both, Patricia Potrzebowski, executive director of the National Association for Public Health Statistics and Information Systems, said at the hearing.

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The seven are Alaska, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and Wisconsin. Several of those states have projects underway to implement one or more of those systems.

The goal of electronic death reporting and records verification for deceased individuals is to have a more accurate and seamless collection and distribution of vital records throughout the nation, ideally with participation by all 50 states.

Without greater integrity in the states’ and nation’s vital records systems, those records will continue to be vulnerable to use for fraud and identity theft, experts said at the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security hearing.

“The advent of technology has facilitated the automation of death registration and reporting, which is the key to addressing these long-standing issues related to accuracy, security, and timeliness of data,” Potrzebowski said.

Between 2001 and 2006, SSA provided funding to help a number of states implement the electronic death reporting system. As of 2008, it was estimated that only $20 million was needed to complete deployment of the system for all 57 jurisdictions.

However, even if all 50 states were using the death reporting and verification electronic systems, there still might be gaps in accuracy due to the existence of fraudulent paper records in the systems, such as stolen birth certificates, Potrzebowski said. The electronic reporting and verification of vital records is “only as good as the underlying data infrastructure upon which it relies,” she said.

For example, there are cases where an individual has assumed a false identity by obtaining a birth certificate of a person who has died. To prevent such cases in the future, birth and death records must be digitized, verified and linked to help identify fraudulent attempts to claim the identities of deceased persons, she said.

However, state budget shortfalls in recent years have slowed down spending on such activity, Potrzebowski said.

The subcommittee examined the Social Security Administration’s management of death statistics in two files, the Numident file and the Death Master File. Most of the data for those files comes from the states and territories. Managing the accuracy, timeliness and security of the sensitive personal information and Social Security numbers contained in the records have continued to be challenges for the agency.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.


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