Death record restrictions hamper research

Health researchers are pushing to open up access to the Social Security Death Master File, which is a treasure trove of health information, while the government is restricting death records for fears of identity theft, The New York Times reported.

The Social Security Death Master File (SSDMF) is a database of 90 million deaths--75 years worth of information from survivors, hospitals, funeral homes and state offices--which include names, Social Security numbers and dates of death, the newspaper noted.

Although incomplete, the SSDMF can be a wealth of information for researchers, but under the Social Security Administration's recent rules, access is restricted. Last November, the federal agency expunged four million deaths from the publicly available master file when the information was tied to identity theft. The office expects that the number of disclosed deaths made public will drop by one million, down from 2.8 million in 2010, according to the NYT.

Jesse Schold, a researcher at the Cleveland Clinic, said the Social Security Administration's rules have compromised his investigation on mortality rates of kidney donors.

Before the recent changes, the agency had been "inadvertently facilitating tax fraud," according Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), CNN Money reported this summer. For the price of only $10, ID thieves could buy the full name and Social Security number and take advantage of the personal information.

For example, Susan Browning, a guardian in Perry, Ill., tried to claim her deceased dependent on her 2010 tax return, but she discovered someone else had stolen her child's identity, the Quincy Herald-Whig reported.

"It's another slap in the face. It's another thing you have to deal with," Browning said.

"I would like to see a bill, saying that you can't make Social Security numbers public knowledge," Browning said. "What is the purpose of having that public knowledge?"

Rep. Sam Johnson (R-Texas) introduced legislation to close public disclosure of the master file, the NYT noted.

Social Security Administration spokesman Mark Hinkle said, "Our job is to administer the Social Security program, and administering a death list really isn't in our core set of workloads."

For more information:
- read the NYT article
- here's the Quincy Herald-Whig article
- see the CNN Money article

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