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April 23, 2014

Death certificate delay angers Health Board

Vigo Coroner Susan Amos says some delays ‘unanticipated’; upset board took matter public

TERRE HAUTE — The Vigo County coroner is not signing death certificates in a timely manner as required by law, according to the Vigo County Health Department.

The delay is causing hardships, and stress, for families who are bereaved and want closure, Joni Wise, health department administrator, said during a recent county Board of Health meeting.

Families also need the death certificates for insurance, financial and other matters after a person’s death, said Terri Manning, supervisor of vital statistics.

The signature is necessary for coroner’s cases — those that occur under suspicious, unusual or unnatural circumstances. The coroner may also be involved in natural deaths that were unattended by a physician.

According to the law, the coroner must file a death certificate with the county health department within 72 hours after completion of a death investigation.

The coroner may file a pending investigation certificate of death before completing the certificate of death, if necessary, the law states.

Wise explained to board members that there had been some problems last year, and the department met with the coroner, Dr. Susan Amos. The matter was addressed at that time, but since then, the problem has resurfaced.

Board member Michael Eldred, a former longtime judge, asked if the problem stemmed from the coroner not receiving a pay raise she requested earlier this year.

Wise responded, “I would sure hope that it’s not. I don’t think that it is. I would like to think that if a person is sworn in and is an elected official … that it would be more of a procedural thing” that hopefully can be resolved.

Amos, whose 2014 salary is $33,023, sought the same salary as other elected officials such as the county treasurer, clerk, auditor and recorder, each which have a 2014 salary of $49,534. Amos made the same salary as those other elected officials when she served as coroner from 2000 to 2004.

The Vigo County Council denied the request because state law does not allow a salary of an elected official to be changed in the year an increase is requested, the council was advised.

The County Council has established a lower base salary for coroner than previous coroner Dr. Roland Kohr, a pathologist. The council added to that base salary, as required by state law, as Amos is a physician. The council stated the higher base salary was set for Kohr, as he did not charge the county for performing autopsies.

Also during the April 16 Board of Health meeting, board member Dora Abel asked if the delay in death certificate signatures was “a political thing.”

Eldred responded, “Well, the solution is political.”

The death certificate is signed electronically through a computer program and can be done quickly, officials said.

On Wednesday, Wise said that the coroner is now up-to-date with signing death certificates for coroner’s cases.

Last month, on March 27, Manning requested a meeting with Amos to discuss state law “that pertains to the 72 hour law of signing death certificates. Once again, this code is not being adhered to by the Vigo County Coroner,” the email stated.

The request was sent to Donna Weger, who works in the coroner’s office across the hall from Vital Statistics in the Vigo County Annex.

The email further states, “We went over the same issues with Dr. Amos in June 2013 with good dialogue occurring in regards to her having a better understanding of policies and procedures that have been implemented since she last held office as coroner. Please let us know when would be a good time for this meeting.”

In an interview Tuesday, Amos said discussions have taken place privately and for health officials “to take it into a public forum — to me — is offensive. … I feel someone must have a hidden agenda.” Amos said she wasn’t told the matter would be brought up for public discussion.

She also said, “We’ve had some delays that were unanticipated.”

Vital statistics staff said at last week’s board of health meeting that sometimes Amos has said she doesn’t have time and she’s also had  family obligations.

Amos says she’s been told if it’s just a matter of a few more days before a death certificate is finalized, “They would rather not have a pending death certificate followed by a finalized one.”   

She further stated, “We had some issues with some things that have not come in on a timely basis.” She did not want to go into details, she said.

The coroner is an elected position in Indiana; the term is four years, and coroners are limited to two consecutive terms under state law.

Amos served as coroner from 1997 to  2004 and was elected again in 2012.

Lisa Barker, executive director of the Indiana Coroners Association, said if a coroner is not fulfilling his or her duties, “unfortunately, we can’t do anything.”

She suggested concerns could be taken to county commissioners to make them aware of a problem — although they would have no control over another elected official.

When asked about any potential recourse, county attorney Michael Wright said he would have to research the issue. He said he was not aware of a problem before being contacted by the Tribune-Star Wednesday.

Ken Severson, spokesman with the Indiana Department of Health, said that while a death certificate must be filed within 72 hours after the death investigation is completed, there is no time limit on that investigation.

A coroner may submit a pending investigation certificate of death before completing the death certificate, but then has “unlimited time” to finish the investigation, Severson said.

Sue Loughlin can be reached at 812-231-4235 or sue.loughlin@tribstar.com.

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