By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily
Wyoming death certificates, including listed causes of death, are being improperly changed by a state agency in a violation of public trust, according to Fremont County’s coroner.
“Since the state department responsible for issuing legal documentation of serious events can no longer be trusted to be accurate, each member of the public that goes through the trauma of the death of a family member now will have to check the certificates they receive and see if it matches for accuracy what they have been told by a coroner in a case,” Mark Stratmoen wrote in his public statement. That is not how the system is supposed to work, and a public trust has been violated.”
However, the interim director of the state Health Department rejected Stratmoen’s claims that the state’s Vital Statistics Services improperly changed information on the certificates.
“I do not hesitate to say the department has not stepped outside of its legal authority or violated administrative rules or procedure with regards to death certificates issued in Fremont County or elsewhere,” Stefan Johansson said in a statement.
Stratmoen is alleging Vital Statistics Services, an office within the Department of Health, is changing items including causes of death listed by physicians and coroners on death certificates, even though it lacks the authority to do so.
“As has recently come to light … in the registration of death, Vital Records has not only issued inaccurate certifications, but intentionally and wrongfully altered the information as originally signed and certified,” Stratmoen’s statement said.
Stratmoen told Cowboy State Daily that none of the information changed had anything to do with the coronavirus.
Death certificates are official documents signed by physicians or coroners that contain information such as the cause, place and time of a death.
Stratmoen, in a public statement issued shortly before his scheduled July 1 retirement, said state laws allow Vital Statistics Services to make changes to those documents only to correct grammar or spelling. Other, more substantive changes are allowed only if the agency receives a signed statement from the coroner or physician who signed the original document.
“The reason for this should be obvious: only physicians have access to personal interactions and detailed medical records in a natural death they attended, and only coroners through detailed scene investigations, records and discussions with a physician, post-mortem testing or autopsy and other methods can come to a conclusion based on the entire circumstances of a death event,” he wrote.
But Stratmoen said the agency has been making changes to the death certificates from Fremont County and other counties.
“In one of our cases, not only was the cause of death changed without permission or communication, but the location of the death was altered by 30 miles,” he wrote.
The agency is not only violating state law, but its own rules, Stratmoen said, putting information in death certificates without authority.
“The facts are pretty plain and simple,” he wrote. “Vital Records broke the law and their own rules, and the specific instances should be corrected, and the behavior stopped.”
Stratmoen said some officials explained the changes as being necessary to make coding in state documents conform with coding used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but he said the information provided in Wyoming documents that had been changed already lined up with CDC codes.
Issuing false certification would appear to be a violation of the law, Stratmoen said in his statement.
“I would think intentionally issuing false legal documentation is probably a criminal violation of some sort, but that would be for attorneys to figure out and not my jurisdiction,” he said. “I just know that the behavior is obviously wrong.”
Stratmoen wrote that he alerted the attorney general’s office to the issue, but has heard no response, although he did accuse the Vital Statistics Services of “interfering with the certification of other cases” in retaliation.
As a result, he said, he decided to issue the public statement during his final days in office.
But Johansson said the Health Department and the attorney general’s office have been working with Fremont County officials to address their concerns about the documents and added the efforts will continue.
“That effort was underway before Mr. Stratmoen issued his statement and will continue,” his statement said. “We remain committed to ensuring Wyoming residents are provided the highest possible level of service as well as reliable, accurate records. I have full faith and confidence in the quality work performed by the Vital Statistics Services staff.”
Stratmoen has been a certified death instructor since 1998 and before becoming coroner in 2015, he was the department’s administrator for 10 years. He recently resigned as president of the Wyoming Coroners Association because of his upcoming retirement.