Department of Health Acting Secretary Alison Beam speaks at a press conference. Harrisburg, PA – February 17, 2021
The Wolf administration has ruled that a six-decade-old legislative committee is not a government agency, blocking its efforts to access 100 redacted death certificates for a study of COVID-19 data reporting.
The Legislative Budget and Finance Committee, which sought the information, noted the administration’s ruling in a report it released this week.
The 12-member committee, split evenly among Democrats and Republicans, oversees a staff of 13 who study topics ranging from the dairy industry to plastic bag bans. Their studies are approved by floor votes in the Legislature, which currently is controlled by Republicans.
The state House unanimously initiated the study with a resolution in November 2020.
“Residents of this Commonwealth need to have accurate and reliable COVID-19 data to make choices for their health, safety and security,” the resolution stated.
The committee then attempted to get the death records from the Department of Health to complete a study on how the department totaled COVID-19 death statistics.
Typically, such records are confidential under the 1953 Vital Statistics Law. The law includes exceptions for government agencies, and permits the use of the information for research.
However, after the committee initiated the study, the Health Department argued in a letter that it could not hand over death certificates, and instead provided a spreadsheet of 17,834 death records it had coded as COVID-19 deaths as of December 2020.
The department pointed out that according to the 1959 law establishing the committee, it could “request, receive, review, examine, study, ascertain and compare fiscal information concerning the budget, the revenues and expenditures of the Commonwealth.”
Because the topic was not related to budget matters, the department said it didn’t have to hand over the death certificates.
The letter added that a “single chamber resolution does not supersede the restrictions of the Vital Statistics Law.”
Using the department’s data, the committee found that COVID-19 may have been a secondary cause of death in 9 percent of the department’s reported deaths.
“We would have reviewed these records closer to determine if in fact our conclusion was correct and investigate any other anomalies, but without access to the corresponding death certificates and records we can only provide limited analysis,” the committee’s study concluded.
The study further recommended that the General Assembly open up access to the underlying data, and suggested the department establish a task force with “coroners, physicians, funeral directors, and medical schools” to clean up cause of death reporting.
The data denial also, once again, inflamed tensions between the Wolf administration, which despite promises of transparency has denied the public access to data during the pandemic, and the GOP-controlled Legislature, whose members have at times downplayed the severity of COVID-19 and undermined Wolf’s emergency powers.
The House already has passed legislation, supported by the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, to expand public records access to generalized public health data. The Wolf administration has argued the bill would allow for the release of “every report of disease” and called it a political attack.
But if Wolf wants to ““talk the transparency talk,” he should “walk the transparency walk” by releasing the requested death data to the committee, state Rep. Kate Klunk, R-York, the study resolution’s sponsor, said in a statement.
“It’s mind-boggling to me that a branch of government would try to deny a bipartisan, bicameral government entity that routinely examines data and performs research information it needs to complete its task,” she added.
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