RPAC 2013 Year-End Report: SSDI Recent-Death Redactions Begin in 90 Days

Report from Barbara J. Mathews, CGSM, BCG’s Representative to the Records Access and Preservation Committee:

A Look at the Year 2013
This year had its highs and lows in the fight to preserve records and to ensure access to them. This year saw accomplishments galore as far as records access and preservation go. Those accomplishments came from the active participation of local genealogists.
  • Genealogists in Texas, and Oregon testified against access restrictions in bills based on the 2011 Model Vital Statistics Act and Regulations. They were successful.
  • Connecticut genealogists testified in legislative hearings against death records closure related to the December 14th event in Newtown. They were successful.
  • BCG advocated for records access in response to questions from the School of Government at the University of North Carolina regarding possible future access restrictions based on the 2011 Model Act and Regulations.
  • Genealogists from throughout the U.S. supported the Georgia Archives, seeing it endure draconian budget and staff cuts, supporting its transfer to the University System, and advocating for a return to a more realistic budget.

I was hindered in providing advocacy for one critical item this year. This was the redaction of recent deaths from the Social Security Death Index. The Senate Finance Committee scheduled a hearing, cancelled it for snow, rescheduled it, and cancelled it again. The Finance Committee Chair released his staff’s notes about what they might put in the bill. The Ranking Member of the Finance Committee (that is, the senior member of the opposition party) released a statement that this was not agreed-upon text. (Both statements appear to have been removed from the Finance Committee page.) One week later, there still had not been a hearing, but the Finance Committee’s text turned up as Section 203 of the Ryan-Murray Budget Conference Committee’s compromise. Section 203 had bypassed committee hearings and public feedback; it lacked committee approval.

In the middle of this process, one person was willing to listen to genealogists. Leah McGrath Goodman, a senior writer for Newsweek magazine, often writes about financial issues. Her article, “The Deathly Flaw Buried Deep in the Budget Bill,” went online the morning of the Senate vote. I and other genealogists tried to put fraudulent use of the SSDI into the context of the total fraudulent returns paid by the IRS. Returns to dead people represent only 1.8% (that’s one point eight percent) of the fraudulent returns to which the IRS annually issues $5 billion in refunds. Our point was that closing the SSDI does not address the bigger issues the IRS has.

The provisions about restrictions to access to the Social Security Death Index will become effective 90 days after the President signs the budget compromise bill. That 90-day period ends in March. The bill provides that a death will not be listed in the SSDI until the end of the calendar year in which the third anniversary occurs. This means that any death during 2014 will first appear in the SSDI on 1 January 2018. At this time, I do not know how that implementation will occur or how retroactive it will be. I will keep you posted as I learn more.

The budget compromise bill states that government agencies and organizations involved in detecting fiscal fraud can have full use of the parent of the SSDI, the Death Master File, during the recent-death redaction period. The Secretary of Commerce must set up a bureau to oversee a certification process and for on-going audits. Fines and possible jail terms were built into the bill for unlawful disclosure of information.

The process of creating this new certification/audit bureaucracy provides genealogists with one last opportunity to participate in the discussion. The Records Access and Preservation Committee has already had an emergency telephone meeting and plans to advocate before the Senate Commerce Committee as the new regulations are developed.

Many Board-certified genealogists work through contract with the Department of Defense’s Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command. You might remember that RPAC, through meetings with the Chair of the House Social Security Subcommittee (himself a former POW) had successfully advocated for inclusion of this DOD project among the entities to be certified for access during the redaction period. Unfortunately, that text was not in the Senate draft used in the budget compromise.

RPAC Report, June and July 2013

Courtesy of Microsoft Office.

Report from Barbara Mathews, CGSM

The Records Access and Preservation Committee is tracking activities at both the federal and state level regarding records access. On all fronts, RPAC has good news to report.

At the State Level

Genealogists in a handful of states have been alert to the introduction of legislation that could restrict vital records access — legislation based on the 2011 Model Act and Regulations (for more on the Model Act, see my previous report).

  • Genealogists in the Texas Genealogical Society uncovered HB 3252. They sent alerts about the bill to every other genealogical society in the state of Texas. Members wrote to legislators and genealogists testified before the House Public Health Committee. The bill has died in committee.
  • Genealogists in Washington discovered legislation in committee. Their quick action meant that the restrictive legislation stalled in that committee.
  • Genealogists in Oregon testified before a legislative committee. They opposed longer restrictions for the release of vital records, as did archivists and other interest groups. Their efforts were successful, resulting in amendment 4 to HB 2093.
  • Genealogists in Connecticut found strong allies to assist in responding to bills to close death records for 100 years — records that have been open for 350 years. These bills were instigated out of concern for the feelings of the survivors and families of Newtown, Connecticut, following the December 14th shootings there. Newspaper reporters and publishers, the Freedom of Information Commission, and State Medical Examiner all spoke out against the closure bills. The committee hearing was covered by the Hartford Courant. RPAC and others wrote to the House Speaker asking that these extreme bills be tabled. This effort was successful. At the last minute, an amendment to an unrelated bill closed 911 tapes and crime scene photos. The New York Times published an editorial against the disturbing backroom process. The process, however, did result in a situation that settled the concerns of the Newtown families without changing 350 years of state policy.

While the Georgia State Archives was under the management of the Secretary of State, the archives saw massive layoffs and  access restrictions. Legislators moved the management of the archives over the University of Georgia System. The chancellor there advocated for better funding and things are improving. RPAC sent letters to members of state legislative committees in support of funding improvements and the management changes. See the blog posting for the Georgia State Archives, titled “More Good News from the Georgia State Archives.”

I was wearing my hat as a Civil Records Co-Director for the Massachusetts Genealogical Council when I attended the annual convention of the National Association for Public Health Statistics and Information Systems (NAPHSIS), an organization of state public health vital statistics offices. At the convention I was able to learn about the complexities of the jobs held by vital statistics registrars. In addition to their responsibilities for civil registration, the registrars are a part of the state public health efforts to produce the birth and death information used by the Centers for Disease Control’s National Center for Health Statistics. If I get a chance to blog about the concerns of state vital records registrars, I will post the links as follow-up comments to this post.

At the Federal Level

RPAC continues to monitor Capitol Hill legislation restricting access to the Social Security Death Index, which is the public version of the Death Master File. The bills introduced earlier this year are still under consideration by committees in the U.S. House and the Senate. Those bills were listed in one of my previous reports which you can see here.

It appears that all is poised to move forward this fall on Capitol Hill. RPAC expects legislation to be introduced in the U.S. Senate and committee hearings to take place in both the House and the Senate. In the meantime, Fred Moss of RPAC went to Washington, DC, to make the case that closure of the SSDI is now unnecessary. The misuse of the social security numbers of dead people is no longer an issue because genealogical websites voluntarily redacted numbers and because the IRS now monitors better.

During the Summer Recess (the month of August), our Congressmen and Senators will be back in their home states. RPAC sees this as a wonderful opportunity for genealogists to express their concerns to their House and Senate members. The step suggested by RPAC is that the president of each state’s umbrella or statewide genealogical society, together with a member of the Association of Professional Genealogists, schedule meetings with each member of the state’s federal delegation or their staff. In those meetings, they can discuss the concerns of genealogists. RPAC provides SSDI-Talking-Points-2013 for this discussion.

The Advocacy Committee of the Association of Professional Genealogists is monitoring records access issues. They have posted a list of recommended actions in regard to these bills before the U.S. Congress. You can read their recommendations here.

Please get in touch with me if you have any questions or concerns about records preservation or records access.

 

RPAC Report, April and May 2013

© 2013 by the National Genealogical Society, Inc. Used by permission of the National Genealogical Society and the photographer, Scott Stewart.

Report from Barbara Mathews, CGSM, BCG’s RPAC Representative:

The Records Preservation and Access Committee had a busy two months since my last report. The committee has been actively engaged at both the federal and state levels responding to pressure on our ability to access records. Currently at the federal level, RPAC is dealing with Senate and House subcommittee hearings on bills to restrict access to the SSDI. In addition, several states have seen legislation to stringently restrict vital records access. Those states have reported their efforts to RPAC and in some cases asked for support.

RPAC’s telephone conference calls in early April and early May focused on state-level pressures to close vital records. RPAC issued letters of support to state legislative committees in both Oregon and Connecticut. Jan Alpert also took over the responsibilities of RPAC Chair from David Rencher, AG, CG.

At the National Genealogical Society’s 2013 conference, Jan Alpert, Jan Meisels Allen, and Fred Moss presented “RPAC Strategies in a Changing Environment: Fraud Protection v. Access.” The group presented a clear picture of the pressures currently faced by those seeking records access. As the photo above shows, there were empty seats. Not all genealogists recognize the need to work for records preservation and access. The few who do are willing to work hard to ensure access for all.

You can download the PowerPoint slides from this presentation by clicking on “RPAC NGS 2013 Las Vegas.” Jan Meisels Allen put together a PowerPoint slide show to explain how to monitor your own state’s legislative activity — just click on “Toolkit for State Liaisons–Jan Meisels Allen.” In addition, Jan Alpert updated the RPAC brochure; a printable copy is available here.

Federal Legislative Activity.

On Tuesday, 16 April 2013, the U.S. Senate’s Finance Committee had a hearing titled “Tax Fraud and Tax ID Theft: Moving Forward with Solutions.” The committee is chaired by Max Baucus (D-MT); Orrin Hatch (R-UT) is the ranking member. Written statements and added oral testimony showed that the IRS has made real progress in intercepting and investigating and prosecuting fraudulent returns. To view the full video of the hearing and statements by Baucus, Hatch, and the four witnesses go to the hearing website here.

On the whole, RPAC considered the hearing to be a step forward in federal understanding of the real issues involved in tax fraud. This includes the fact that the SSDI is used to prevent fraud rather than to instigate it. The blog posting, available here, describes the reasons for optimism as “[T]he IRS should eventually be able to statistically confirm that that vulnerability targeting the deceased has been closed.”

RPAC submitted written testimony that they support short-term (2 or 3 year) closure only if the following three categories are considered for access:

  • Persons working with coroners, medical examiners, DOD
  • Persons doing work on missing heirs, probate, mineral rights
  • Persons supporting medical work

Jan Alpert reminded us that the last week in May is a scheduled recess for both houses of the U.S. Congress. She said that would be an excellent time to approach people in their local offices. Consider getting a small group of people together, including the president of the statewide genealogical society, a member of APG, and an accredited or Board-certified genealogist. Schedule a meeting with your legislator and convey the message that we care about access to the SSDI.

Local Concerns

The unapproved 2011 Model Act and Regulations discussed in the March RPAC report: , have led to the introduction of legislation in many states. Several states are coping with closure legislation this Spring.

  • Texas
  • Oregon
  • Connecticut

The Texas legislature is considering a bill that introduces the long records closure periods of the unapproved 2011 Model Act and Regulations. Members of the Texas genealogy community advocated for access in legislative hearings. See the report of the Texas State Genealogy Society here.

Oregon genealogists worked with other interested parties to eliminate restrictive closure clauses in HB 2093 during hearings April 10th before the Oregon House’s Health Care Committee and  May 9th before Oregon Senate’s Healthcare and Human Services Committee. The RPAC blog posting about the process is very informative.

Connecticut’s General Assembly considered bills generated out of concern for the tragedy in Newtown on December 14th. The gun control legislation instigated by that tragedy already passed. The town clerk of Newtown, however, has induced local legislators to introduce legislation to close death records. Currently all death and marriage records are open. Two new laws were reported out of committee favorably and await votes in the General Assembly’s House. The state medical examiner spoke passionately about the need to keep death records of children open; see the Hartford Courant coverage here. RPAC submitted a letter asking for this legislation to be reconsidered.

Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions or concerns about records access or preservation.