A State of Alaska vital statistics database remains offline months after a cyber-attack, leading to monthslong waits for death certificates, delays complicating the lives of Alaskans trying to settle estates and take care of other business.
When state officials discovered a cyberattack on Alaska Department of Health and Social Services online systems, the state’s Electronic Vital Records System was taken offline as a precaution, the state said. Since May 17, records for deaths, births and marriages are being “manually processed” from Juneau, by hand, according to a statement from the department.
“Be assured we are doing everything we can to fully resume services,” the statement said. “We hope to serve the public at normal capacity very soon.”
On average, getting a death certificate issued by the state has been taking eight weeks or more, said Brian Lervold, an Anchorage funeral director. The usual timeline would be closer to 7-10 days -- with most of that time spent waiting for a doctor to sign off, Lervold said.
Meanwhile, Alaskans like 77-year-old Marta Tuck are learning how much depends on having a death certificate in hand.
When a close friend died in April, Tuck was named the executor of the estate, charged with handling the sale and disbursement of her friend’s home and other property, like vehicles. She was also in charge of arranging a funeral.
But Tuck couldn’t get an official death certificate from the State of Alaska for nearly three months, she said. Without a death certificate, she couldn’t access her friend’s bank accounts as executor to pay the deceased friend’s home utilities or insurance. In the meantime, she dug into her own savings to pay for those expenses. She estimates she has spent thousands of dollars, including late fees, taking care of the practical things the estate would have paid for had she been able to access accounts.
Tuck, who works as a reflexologist to supplement her retirement, also spent about 20 hours on the phone dealing with the missing death certificate.
When someone dies, the usual procedure is for the funeral home to work with the family to fill out the biographical information necessary for a death certificate, and then for a doctor to input the cause of death, said Brian Lervold, an Anchorage funeral director. An autopsy can delay the process until toxicology results return. Then the information is sent to the state.
“We file it, the state certifies it and gives us the amount of certified copies we’ve requested,” he said.
Lervold alone is waiting on 37 death certificates right now, and that’s just a fraction of what the funeral home he works at is facing, he said. He said he’d received just eight death certificates since the system was taken offline.
A death certificate is necessary to do “just about everything” that needs to be taken care of after a death, he said. Without one, bereaved families “can’t close out accounts. They can’t change property, vehicles.” Accessing pensions, life insurance and other financial accounts requires a death certificate in most cases, according to Lervold.
Not having a death certificate can delay burials too: For people whose bodies are being transported to their hometowns in the Lower 48 or abroad, a death certificate is often required for travel. One family is waiting on a death certificate to send a loved one back to American Samoa for burial, he said.
Lervold said the state took weeks to even provide PDFs for funeral homes to manually fill out after the system was taken offline, at one point advising the funeral home where he works to purchase a typewriter to print and fill out unfillable PDFs. That problem has been rectified, but the death certificate delay situation has become dire, in his view. He’s advised families to contact their elected officials.
“At some point there’s got to be some pressure applied.”
Officials haven’t offered a timeline for when the services will be restored but are “working to bring the system back online,” said department spokesman Clint Bennett in an email. An update could be announced later this week, he said.
“We understand the inconvenience these unforeseen circumstances have brought to all our customers,” DHSS said in a statement. “We ask for everyone’s continued understanding as we recover from the cyberattack.”
Tuck got her death certificate from the state on July 22, and is slowly trying to settle the accounts she’s responsible for as executor. She doesn’t like to dwell on what her late friend would think of the situation.
“I think she would be appalled,” Tuck said.
Have you encountered problems because you aren’t able to get a death, birth or marriage certificate from the State of Alaska? Contact reporter Michelle Theriault Boots at firstname.lastname@example.org.