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National News

Database Collection of Death Information Not Public Record

April 22, 2024 posted by Steve Brownstein

Requests for Individual Records Not Affected

A statewide database of dead Ohioans with the names and addresses associated with the causes of death is not available to the public via a public records request because it contains “protected health information,” the Supreme Court of Ohio ruled today.

In a 5-2 decision, the Supreme Court rejected the claim of former Columbus Dispatch Reporter Randy Ludlow, who sought the cause-of-death information from the Ohio Department of Health (ODH) during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The department provided Ludlow with requested spreadsheets with vital information from death certificates, including sex, age, and cause of death, but not the names and addresses of those who died.

Writing for the Court majority, Justice Patrick F. Fischer stated the department correctly determined that the names and addresses, when combined with the other medical information, would constitute protected health information. Under R.C. 3701.17, the department is prohibited from releasing that information.

The Court disagreed with Ludlow’s claim that R.C. 3701.17 protects the information of the living and that the health information of deceased Ohioans is not protected.

“However, we see no reason to limit the definition of ‘individual’ to ‘living individual’ when the statute does not make that distinction,” Justice Fischer wrote.

Chief Justice Sharon L. Kennedy and Justices R. Patrick DeWine, Melody Stewart, and Joseph T. Deters joined Justice Fischer’s opinion.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Jennifer Brunner wrote that information provided by local health departments to ODH’s database must be a public record, because under another state law, anyone can obtain the entire death record by visiting the local vital records department.

“In short, under R.C. 3705.231, all that is needed to access and copy a death record that presumably contains information regarding the deceased individual’s name, address, and cause of death – information that the majority opinion asserts is protected health information – is to ask and it shall be permitted,” she wrote.

Justice Michael P. Donnelly joined Justice Brunner’s opinion.

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