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13 WTHR Indianapolis | Indianapolis Local News & Weather

Death certificates delayed for hundreds of Hoosiers

Without a death certificate, families can't access life insurance, transfer property or settle bank accounts.

PENDLETON, Ind. — Problems are persisting with Indiana's new online system that registers birth and death certificates. Hundreds of Hoosiers still can't get death certificates for loved ones who died months ago. The issue is affecting coroners and funeral homes, too.

The Indiana State Health Department acknowledges trouble with the system and said it's working on solutions. But families told 13 Investigates a fix isn't happening fast enough.

When William Jackson's mom died in December, his grief was put on hold.

"I do miss her. I'm trying to get there anyway," Jackson said. "The biggest thing is I haven't even had time to mourn for trying to worry about you know, taking care of business."

Tim Pettigrew lost his dad in December, too. He also hasn't had closure for months.

"We have been waiting ever since for his death certificate," Pettigrew said. "I've sent 47 emails to different areas trying to help us through this. Now here we are into February, and it still isn't happening. It's been extremely tough and this has not helped, at all."

Jackson and Pettigrew are just a couple of the hundreds of grieving Hoosiers left in limbo because of a backlog in Indiana's new vital records system. Approximately 900 death certificates are currently delayed statewide.

Without a death certificate, families can't access life insurance, transfer property or settle bank accounts.

"I don't want to be an opinionated person, but I'm not even sure they care. I mean, they have to have had thousands of phone calls," Jackson said.

"They're not taking phone calls, not answering emails and it is extremely frustrating. When you do get ahold of somebody, the only thing you get is a whole list of excuses," Pettigrew said.

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Madison County Coroner Dr. Troy Abbott shares families' frustrations. He said he hasn't been able to file death certificates since the state replaced its outdated online registry with the new "DRIVE" system on Jan. 4.

He is registered in the new system, but it has him at the wrong address, which locks him out. He's filed "trouble tickets" with the state. The latest ticket listed him as customer No. 3,600.

"All 92 counties are going through the same thing," Dr. Abbott said. "Finally I got one death certificate signed on Monday afternoon, but that's as far as I could get. We can't do our job as coroners. We can't do our job as physicians. I'm also a hospice medical director and I can't sign death certificates for the hospice company I work for. It's just been very frustrating."

The state health department blames the backlog on doctors, funeral home directors and other providers not registering for the new system, despite months of reaching out.

State Health Commissioner Dr. Kristina Box claims the state is working for those who use it.

"I would never have chosen to do this during the middle of a pandemic, but Adobe Flash was going away and our old system, Genesis, was no longer functional," Dr. Box said. "Only about 32 percent of individuals have signed up in the new DRIVE system."

Box estimated the state had processed around 15,000 birth and death certificates in the new system — proof that it works.

"It works and the people that actually now have had further training on it, it works," Dr. Box said during a press briefing last Wednesday, responding to a question from 13 Investigates. "They love it. I mean they say it works well. We have a few kinks to work out, but what we need to do is get through this backlog of tickets and questions."

Dr. Box said the state does have to address certificates leftover from 2020, and there's now a path forward for that.

But Dr. Abbott said he's still plagued with problems. He registered for the system in October, yet he can't get a fix from the state.

"It's been radio silence," Dr. Abbott said.

Credit: WTHR
Grove Lawn Cemetery in Pendleton, Indiana.

Abbot also said there's now a workaround to allow cremations, to avoid a backup of bodies — another concerning issue.

"We're authorizing cremations and we don't know really why they died," Dr. Abbott said. "This is at a time when COVID deaths have led to an increased death rate and we need to have a death record system that will allow us to put the proper diagnosis on the death certificate."

Meanwhile, for hundreds of Hoosiers, the continued backlog adds to the pain of losing a loved one.

"They need to rectify this and rectify it fast," Jackson said.

"Bottom line, this has gone for almost two months and we still have not had success in getting his death certificate," Pettigrew said. "What is your contingency plan? What are you doing for these families? And the answer is not a darn thing!"