Legislative alert: Preserve access to basic coroner information: Oppose House Bill 297

  • Oct 18, 2016

The Senate Local Government Committee is poised to vote Wednesday, Oct. 19, on House Bill 297, which would prevent timely access to name, cause and manner of death, and, if amended as proposed, prevent access to critical ‘cause of death’ information. The Bill has already passed the House.

Action Needed: Please consider editorializing on this topic as well as contacting members of the Senate Local Government Committee to voice your opposition to HB 297. Find members of the Committee here.

House Bill 297, authored by Rep. Eli Evankovich (R-Westmoreland), would create a new statute called the “Release of Coroner and Medical Examiner Information Act.” The proposed legislation would prohibit the release of the identity of a deceased person until next of kin was notified or 72 hours “following the determination of the identity of the deceased individual or the cause and manner of the death, whichever occurs first.” Even then, the bill does not require release of the information, creating a potential conflict with the Right to Know, and an amendment (A10633) has been proposed that would expressly prohibit coroners from releasing information about medical “test results,” or “drug test results.”

Under current law, the Right to Know Law and the Coroner’s Act have been interpreted to require public access to the name, cause and manner of death within five business days at the latest. A 2012 opinion of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, interpreting both laws, provided that “the RTKL and Section 1236.1 (c) of the Coroner’s Act each provide immediate access to cause and manner of death records.” (emphasis added). The three-day rule proposed by HB 297 prohibits release for at least three days, and then doesn’t require release ever.

But the proposed amendment’s blanket exemption for “test results” is just as troubling. When accidents and incidents resulting in death occur in a community, the community has a legitimate right to know the cause of death.  Was the driver under the influence? Suffering a heart attack? Is the accident part of a pattern of deaths brought on by an illicit drug – cocaine or heroin – flooding the area? Likewise, if a worker is killed in a work accident, the community has a legitimate interest in knowing the circumstances of death.  On the surface, it may appear a tragic accident.  But was medication or substance abuse a contributing factor? These are factual matters that lead to public understanding of what caused the accident and how similar ones might be prevented. 

The position of coroner has been established as an impartial, medically competent office to determine the cause, time and manner of death. The public depends on it to find out whether a death is natural, accidental or criminal. The coroner’s rulings are most valuable when delivered promptly, while public attention is high and support for necessary changes in policy, law, or behavior is strong.

The current language of HB 297 would require withholding of basic coroner information for lengthy periods of time where cause and manner of death was undetermined, such as in instances with badly decomposed bodies, or deaths involving multiple conditions and sequences of conditions. It would also prohibit disclosure of information if the information is interpreted to “jeopardize an official investigation.” This exemption is overbroad and could severely limit the ability of crime victims, the public and news media to provide any meaningful scrutiny of the coroner or medical examiner’s activities during the pendency of an “official investigation.”  Finally, if A10633 is approved, the bill would prevent access altogether to medical or drug test results that are part of a ‘cause of death,’ eliminating a community’s ability understand a potential drug or other significant problem in the community.

The fact is that the Right to Know Law, in conjunction with the Coroner’s Act, already protects investigative records and related information.  Name, cause and manner of death – the most basic of death-related information – are expressly public under these laws and must remain so.  HB297 is unnecessary, overbroad, and will only create confusion and conflict in interpreting existing law and the public’s right to know.

For these reasons, we urge a “no” vote on HB297 and on proposed Amendment A10633.

For more information on PNA's position, contact Paula Knudsen, Director of Government Affairs/Legislative Counsel: (717) 951-6314 or paulak@pa-news.org

 

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