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Morticians, Roberti Try to Ease Rules on Death Certificates

February 21, 1988|T. W. McGARRY | Times Staff Writer

California funeral directors and State Sen. David A. Roberti are trying to ease the state's strict requirements on death certificates, contending that a "bureaucratic maze" forces funeral directors and physicians into routinely violating the law to prevent funerals from being postponed at the last minute.

Roberti (D-Los Angeles), the Senate president pro tem, introduced legislation Friday that would authorize health officials to issue burial permits to funeral directors, even if there were "non-material errors" on death certificates, allowing mistakes or omissions to be corrected later. The bill also would allow doctors to authorize employees, such as office nurses, to sign death certificates.

But State Registrar David Mitchell, whose office is responsible for death certificates, opposes a major part of the proposed change, saying that it would be "a serious step backward," crippling the certificates' legal and scientific usefulness.

He will oppose the bill in the Legislature, and "if it got to the governor's desk in this form, my office would recommend that it be vetoed," Mitchell said in an interview.

Funeral directors have for many years complained about the insistence on perfect paper work on the death certificate, with rules that specify precise wording and even the color of the ink, with no erasures or changes allowed.

An imperfect certificate currently means that county health officials will not issue a burial permit until the doctor is located to sign another one, even if the error is as small as spelling out "February" in a date instead of abbreviating it to "Feb." as required, or giving the time of death as "4 p.m." instead of the required "1600 hours."

The funeral industry prepared the proposed revisions and submitted them to Roberti after an article in The Times in September, quoting a supervisor at Malinow & Silverman, a Westside Los Angeles funeral home. The supervisor said death certificates were routinely altered there, and some certificates were thrown away and physicians signatures forged to new ones, to avoid the expense of legally mandated coroner's reviews of some deaths.

Laws 'Widely Ignored'

His charges were investigated by the state Health Department, which includes the office of Mitchell, the registrar. Mitchell has said the investigation indicated that Malinow & Silverman "widely ignored the laws and did things that were patently fraudulent."

State authorities in December sent their findings over to the Los Angeles County district attorney's office, which said the investigation is continuing. An attorney for Malinow & Silverman said that to date "there has been no substantiation of these allegations."

The accusations, however, prompted action by the county Board of Supervisors, which earlier this month adopted new controls recommended by the auditor-controller's office, including random checks on the validity of doctors' signatures on death certificates "to detect illegal activity" by funeral homes.

The proposed new state law would allow bodies to be buried on the strength of incomplete certificates, permitting "non-material" information--such as birth dates, the identity of parents, or marital status--to be completed or amended later.

"I think, in all candor, that a lot of funeral directors change death certificates now," violating the state regulations, Ron Roy, owner of Woods Mortuary in Glendale, said in an interview.

Roy, a leader in the effort to change the law, is on the board of directors of the California Funeral Directors Assn. and is a member of its legislative committee.

The strict requirements of the current law force funeral directors to engage in "misdemeanor violations," Roy said, encouraging a casual attitude toward the rules.

The industry does not condone serious alterations to death certificates of the kind allegedly made at Malinow & Silverman--such as changes in the cause of death and forgery of physicians' signatures--but less important changes and other violations are probably commonplace, Roy said.

Borrowed Typewriter

"I've filed illegal death certificates and I'd like to see them try to take me to court for it," he said. In one case, he borrowed a typewriter from a county registrar to make a minor--but illegal--change in a death certificate "and he watched me do it and then accepted the certificate," Roy said.

"It's like learning that you can go past the speed cop at 65 and not get a ticket. Well, why not go 75?"

It is a felony to file a fraudulent death certificate, carrying a penalty of up to three years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

In California, doctors normally fill out only about one third of the one-page certificate, listing the cause of death and contributing medical factors. Funeral homes collect the certificates from physicians and fill in the remainder, including identification of the deceased and his or her parents, occupation and other personal data.

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