States Slowly Trying to Make Birth Certificates Digital

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For decades, getting a copy of a birth certificate has required a weeks-long wait for the mail or a personal visit to a state's vital statistics office. That may soon change, much to the relief of those seeking passports, government aid and certain jobs.

Vital statistics offices around the country are trying to automate the centuries-old practice of keeping birth records. Of course, the shorter wait likely will mean a higher cost to consumers.

In Ohio, for example, the cost of a certified copy of a birth certificate has risen from $10 to $16.50 in the past two years. Fees in some counties, where various charges can be added, have reached $25.

"It's a little pricey for a piece of paper, especially since I'm here in Ohio," said Lovelle Scott, a young mother with two children, who needs hers to apply for government help.

States are increasing the fees to raise money needed to convert their birth certificate archives from dusty stacks of paper and microfilm to electronic databases.

The idea is to make it easier to retrieve a copy in an era of heightened national security, expanded voter identification mandates, a national immigration debate and upcoming federal ID requirements. The transition also will streamline a growing number of government processes that rely on birth certificate information.

Texas was among states able to take advantage of the political climate to raise money for a modernization, said Doug McBride, a spokesman for the Texas Department of State Health Services. He said it is unclear whether it was the mood following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the debate over illegal immigrants, or something else.

The state began converting its 48 million birth, death and marriage records to electronic files in January, a project expected to take five years. A month before the conversion began, the state doubled the price of a certified birth certificate from $11 to $22.

Texas also is among states that have offered an interim step into the electronic age: Birth certificates can be ordered online and paid for by credit card.

Ohio officials have given themselves until 2010 to create digital images of the state's entire birth certificate archive, dating to 1908 — which includes 26 million documents on 43 million pages. The upgrade includes a move into a new vaulted, fire-protected headquarters.

"Every state's facing the same situation where its vital record is a part of the identity definition for citizens," said Jim Pearsol, assistant state director of vital statistics.

"And so, as the issue of identity has drawn attention for passports, for Social Security numbers, for driver's license, that's had a corresponding influence on state vital records offices to get ready."

Ohio began planning its digital conversion in 2000, after a fire threatened the building where it housed its main records collection, Pearsol said. The department also realized that, despite improvements, its processing time had peaked at about 3 weeks on average.

The process requires four people: one to receive the certificate request, either at a window, through the mail or online; one to retrieve the record; one to copy the record; and one to stamp it certified. The steps are physically segregated for security and safety purposes.

"We sort of maxed out as far as we could go with a paper-based system," Pearsol said. "We can take it from weeks to hours with an electronic-based system."

Most states began plotting their conversions after 2003, said Garland Land, executive director of the National Association for Public Health Statistics and Information.

In that year, the birth certificate form used by obstetricians, health administrators and registrars nationwide saw its first post-Internet revisions. The form is revamped every 10 to 15 years by the association and the Centers for Disease Control's National Center for Health Statistics, Land said.

The idea of finally moving the birth certificate system into the electronic age was great in theory. Then states saw the pricetag: an estimated $750,000, depending on population — or a minimum of $37.5 million for all 50 states. Only about half the states have been able to afford it, most through fee increases like Ohio's, Land said.

Land said with states moving at a different pace in transitioning records, America could spend the next decade without comparable vital statistics from the states.

Centers for Disease Control spokesman Bill Crews said such statistics provide important insights for federal policymakers.

"Just like the Census, it really undergirds our entire political system," he said. For instance, death statistics play a role in rates charged for life insurance, and statistics gathered on birth certificates, such as the average mother's age, can affect government budget decisions on Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

In Ohio and numerous other states, some of the money for the conversion project is also coming from the Social Security Administration, which is particularly eager to see state death records filed electronically so it can eliminate delays in cutting off Social Security benefits after a death.

While Ohio's birth certificate conversion is projected to take until 2010, the death certificate conversion, with Social Security Administration's help, will be done later this year.

"They're saving a lot of money by cutting off benefits early, so they see it in their best interests to speed up that system," Land said. "But nobody has provided support on the birth systems, so that's why states are slow to do this."