The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Editorials

September 28, 2011

Keep the public informed

Bill would restrict access to coroners’ reports

— Our state’s senators are at it again, and we urge our readers to join us – once more – in fighting their efforts.

The legislators are considering SB 961, which would drastically restrict access to coroners’ records and directly contradict the Right To Know Law. 

We agree with the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association that passage of this bill would be a step backward when it comes to transparency and openness.

Actually, it is the same bill that passed the House and Senate last session (then-titled HB 2477).

Fortunately, it was vetoed by then-Gov. Ed Rendell.

The bill, opponents argue, would eliminate access to all autopsy-related records and would delay access to even name, cause and manner of death of a decedent until 30 days after the calendar year in which a death occurs.

Coroners would have no obligation to give a full report on the cause of a suspicious death to the families of the deceased, to the news media or to the public.

That’s not right.

The Pennsylvania Coroner’s Association has pushed hard for this legislation for many years, often citing the sensitivity to family members’ feelings at the time of a death.

There is no question that all involved in the process of someone’s death, including the media, need to be sensitive.

But this issue is more about representing the interests of the public in a timely and impartial way.

While we respect the tough job facing those on coroners’ staffs across Pennsylvania, coroners are not grief counselors, and they are not employed by families.

They are employed by the public to represent the interests of the public.

The position has been established as an impartial, medically competent office to determine the cause, time and manner of death.

The public depends on our coroners to find out whether a death is natural, accidental or criminal.

Coroners’ rulings are most valuable when delivered promptly, while public attention is high and support for necessary changes in policy, law or behavior is strong.

Here’s how our readers can help: Please contact your state senator and representative in the House, whether by telephone, mail or e-mail. Tell them you are opposed to SB 961.

In 2010, this effort passed both houses by wide margins. We expect this attempt to move along very quickly, so please don’t hesitate.

Getting in touch

* Rep. Bryan Barbin, 536-9818; www.pahouse.com/barbin/

* Rep. Frank Burns, 536-8400; www.pahouse.com/burns/

* Rep. Gary Haluska, 674-8939; www.pahouse.com/haluska/

* Rep. Carl Walker Metzgar, 443-4230; www.pahouse.com/metzgar/

* Sen. Richard Kasunic, (724) 626-1611; www.senatorkasunic.com/

* Sen. John Wozniak, 266-2277; www.senatorwozniak.com/

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