Arizona Department of Health Services went live with its new vital records system on Oct. 2.

Photo by Moriah Hernandez/Cronkite News

PHOENIX – Several Arizona funeral home directors say a new online system to process death certificates has led to delays in cremations and burials.

One funeral administrator said Messinger Mortuaries used to handle about 30 cremations a day, but that dropped to four per day after the Arizona Department of Health Services launched the system in October.

Heather Everett, an administrative assistant at Messinger Indian School Mortuary, said the process of getting to cremation went from hours to several days under the new system.

The Arizona Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers briefly discussed funeral homes’ concerns in November. Executive Director Judith Stapley declined to comment about the accusations of an inefficient system.

DHS moved from a paper-based system to an online system to issue birth and death certificates to “enhance” the process, DHS spokeswoman Nicole Capone said in an email. The system is performing well, but the agency is reviewing the system after complaints were lodged, she said.

The system has become more tangled because hundreds of doctors who issue death certificates have not been entered into the online system, and several funeral administrators said they didn’t have enough training on the new database.

Imelda Vidal’s brother, Sergio Castro, 53, died of heart failure on Oct. 4. She started cremation plans the next day, but the funeral home said she had to wait as long as three weeks because of the new death certificate process. His body wasn’t cremated until more than two weeks later.

“I don’t understand the mentality of going online with a system that’s not ready, that’s going to cause more harm or pain to people that are already in pain because they lost somebody,” Vidal said. “The pain and anguish it causes is horrible.”

Vidal’s brother was not the only one whose final arrangements were delayed, said Jakki Moss, manager of Messinger Indian School Mortuary.

“We weren’t able to help the families, and at the end of the day it doesn’t matter — state, county — it is about the families that are grieving. That is our job, to help them,” Moss said. “The frustration was that we weren’t able to do that, and it was through no fault of our own.”

At least one funeral home manager said agency officials checked in on the situation and the weeks-long problems are finally beginning to settle down.

Under the previous, paper-based system, funeral directors could start planning cremations or burials without waiting for the completed death certificate. Once they faxed a form and worksheet to the Office of Vital Records they could receive a disposition permit, according to the Maricopa County website.

Doctors not registered

Physicians now are required to complete death certificates online. The new workflow will not allow funeral homes to obtain disposition permits before the registration of the death certificate is complete, according to the Arizona Funeral, Cemetery and Cremation Association.

But two problems emerged, some funeral directors said. Hundreds of doctors are not registered in the new system, meaning they can’t log in to see which deaths need to receive certificates, said Everett, the administrative assistant at a Messinger mortuary. That has meant mortuary administrators have to hunt down doctors.

In one case, Everett sent a certificate to a doctor. Nine days later, there still was no response. Eventually, she had the state department relinquish the certificate for him, so another doctor could sign off on it.

“There should have been a requirement for (physicians) to get into that system before the rollout, because having to hunt them down and get them in the system to certify has been hard,” Moss said.

Reports of cremation and funeral backlogs surfaced soon after the new system went into place.

“Instead of it taking hours to get cremation clearance like typical, it was taking days. So we were getting more and more backed up. We would get a few out to our crematory, but in that time we were taking in three times as many as we were getting out,” Everett said.

When Vidal visited Avenidas Cremation & Burial to make her brother’s final arrangements the day after his death, the funeral director told her there would be a delay. His body would not be embalmed during that waiting period, but stored in a refrigerator until the funeral home received clearance.

“It gave me nightmares. What is he going to look like in three weeks?” Vidal said.

The funeral director told her about the new online system, known as Database Application for Vital Events or DAVE, and its complications, explaining many of the doctors weren’t yet entered in the system to certify the death certificates.

By mid-November, Messinger Mortuary was still experiencing issues with doctors not being entered into the system.

The Arizona Medical Association has been working with DHS on the educational and training material to help overcome the startup issues, said Sharla Hooper, associate vice president of communications at the association.