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Keeping Watch Over Massachusetts Public Records
What Is the 2011 Model Act and Regulations? Should Genealogists Worry?
In the U.S., there are 57 varieties of vital statistics: the fifty states, five territories, Washington, DC, and New York City keep vital statistics in their own systems. The federal government requires reporting to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), a part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), and to the Social Security Administration, to name just two. To do this, all 57 entities and the federal government must agree on how to transmit information.
There are two ways in which these groups work together. The 57 recording entities are involved in the non-governmental National Association for Public Health Statistics and Information Systems (NAPHSIS). From its side, DHHS has evolved the Model Act and Regulations, a set of suggestions about how individual states can enact law and develop regulations about how to implement that law. The states are not required to implement the Model Act and Regulations. The Regulations do not specify the electronic formats for records transmission, but they do specify the types of information to be kept.
In 2009, the CDC appointed a committee to update the 1992 Model Act. The members of that committee were predominately drawn from the members of NAPHSIS. On 8 June 2011, NAPHSIS approved the new Model Act and sent it back to the CDC; the text of the resolution can be found here. At that point, genealogists expected that the Model Act would be published by DHHS so that the public could review it and provide feedback, just as they had done for the 1977 and 1992 Model Acts. That never happened. The Model Act was put on indefinite hold. As the CDC website states here, "DHHS is currently reviewing the proposed revision of the Model Law."
In spite of the lack public scrutiny and feedback, in spite of the lack of DHHS approval, the Records Preservation and Access Committee (RPAC) suspects that elements of the Model Act have been used to introduce new legislation. You can read RPAC's concerns here.
On 1 March 2013, NAPHSIS unilaterally released the draft version of the 2011 Model Act and Regulations. Although it is labeled as the "final" version, it still has not been reviewed by the public nor has it been approved by DHHS. It bears a date three months after NAPHSIS approval.
To get back to our opening question, do we need to worry about the 2011 Model Act? How effective is it if the 57 entities are not required to implement it? The answer is that most legal entities do implement large parts of it. When the 1977 Model Act's language placed the Registrar of Vital Statistics under the Department of Public Health, almost every state moved them there. When the 1992 Model Act specified closure periods for vital records, almost every state implemented them.
Although much of the 2011 Model Act describes the kinds of records to keep, it also specifies who can access them and for how long they are closed to genealogists. Here are the suggested closure periods for various events:
- 75 years for death records
- 100 years for marriage and divorce records
- 125 years for birth records
Is this more closure for a longer period of time then your state currently uses? It surely is in Massachusetts.
The 2011 Model Act should be a call to all genealogists to start paying attention. If we pay attention, we can participate in the discussion when closure bills are submitted on the state level. If we pay attention, we can send letters to our legislators and testify before committees considering the bills. If we pay attention, we can alert our legislators to the fact that the 2011 Model Act has not been reviewed by the public and approved by DHHS.
This should be a call-to-action for all genealogists. If we don't pay attention, we could lose access on the state level. Massachusetts has a statewide organization tasked to monitor legislation. Michigan and Texas have people doing this as well. Does your state?
There is speculation that two elements of the 2011 Model Act are so controversial that DHHS was reluctant to make them public. These two elements are:
- Using language in marriage records that can accommodate same sex marriages, such as Registrant rather than Husband and Wife (Regulation 28.4): "In addition, all certifications of a marriage or domestic partnership record shall include at a minimum the following information for each registrant..."
- Recording all abortions (Section 25): "Each induced termination of pregnancy which occurs in this State, regardless of the length of gestation, shall be reported to the (Office of Vital Statistics) within five calendar days by the person in charge of the institution in which the induced termination of pregnancy was performed."
Chances are that these are hot topics for everyone, from every side of the political debate.
Image courtesy of Microsoft Office.