Nearly 10 months after the New York City Department of Health had to retract its newly released life-events registration program because of widespread system failures, an interfaith coalition is lobbying city officials to prevent the rollout of an updated version of the same program, citing numerous concerns.
The DOH replaced its existing Electronic Vital Events Registration System, known as EVERS, on October 9th, 2017, with its new eVital system designed to provide easier access, higher quality birth and death certificates and a simplified sign-in process that included facial recognition. Plagued by problems from the day it launched, many found that the $5.8 million system did not work, preventing users from printing death certificates and mandatory burial permits. As a result, morticians found themselves running all over the city, first to pick up handwritten death certificates and then bringing them to the DOH’s downtown offices to obtain burial permits, a process that found multiple families delaying their loved ones’ funerals, some by several days.
The DOH temporarily disabled eVital within 24 hours of its launch hoping to correct its shortcomings, but when it became clear that no simple solutions were in sight, the system was taken down indefinitely on October 12th. According to the NYC Health website, the initial rollout of eVital was canceled “due to performance issues.”
Confident that eVital’s issues have been resolved, the DOH plans to take down the EVERS system on Friday night, September 28th, and have eVital up and running on October 1st, which coincides with Shemini Atzeres. That timeline is just one of many issues that concern Yanky Meyer, founder and director of Misaskim, who noted that from Friday night until the new system goes live on Sunday night, the two-step electronic process of getting both a death certificate and a burial permit will be done entirely with paper documents, a process that will take exponentially longer.
“Hospitals don’t even have paper death certificates anymore and because of the extra time involved in that process, there will be no way at all to get anyone onto a Motzoei Shabbos flight for burial in Eretz Yisrael,” said Meyer. “Even local burials will be nearly impossible because if we don’t have a death certificate in hand by first thing Sunday morning, there is no way to get a grave opened on that day. And with Yom Tov starting on Sunday night, it will be at least four days before we will be able to get anyone buried.”
While that particular problem could be solved by postponing the rollout by a week, it is just the tip of the iceberg, noted Noor Rabah, founder and CEO of Muslim Funeral Services. Rabah said that the system has yet to be tested by its end users, half of whom are not even enrolled in eVital.
“When you roll out the second draft of a system, it should be polished and perfected by funeral homes and by everyone who is using it, not the people who put it in place and have forced it on them,” said Rabah. “The system should be approved and right now it is still incomplete.”
Bringing a system online with no backup plan in place is a recipe for disaster, observed Rabah.
“You are at the point of no return by then,” said Noor. “How long will it take to get past that? Our primary concern is the families and we need to care for them in a timely fashion.”
DOH statistics show that while 95 percent of funeral homes are enrolled in eVital, only 38 percent of the 14,000 doctors who work within city hospitals are currently registered with the system, giving them the ability to issue death certificates once the system is launched. A pre-rollout training session had users voicing multiple concerns about the system, which works in conjunction with a smartphone app, but cell phone service can be spotty in hospitals, especially in operating rooms that are often housed below ground and are near heavy equipment that disrupts service. eVital’s facial recognition system, which allows users to create a profile using pictures taken on their cell phone, is another point of contention.
“If a man grows a beard, or shaves off his beard, or a woman gets a radically different haircut after taking their profile picture, the system will have trouble recognizing their new look,” explained Meyer. “The DOH has said that the system will learn to recognize them in time but when someone dies that last thing you have is time. Whether it is for religious reasons or not, families need to be able to bury their loved ones in a timely fashion, but they won’t be able to because doctors won’t be able to sign the death certificate right away.”
Even if the system works as promised, something that many consider to be highly unlikely since it has yet to be field tested by actual users, it will still create burial delays since all requests will be held in a central queue for an hour to allow for corrections. The DOH has said that it will accept phone requests to expedite the process, but holidays and weekends, when calls are forwarded to a cell phone that may not be answered in a timely fashion, will create significant problems for Jews and Muslims.
A July 16th meeting had a broad group bringing their concerns to City Councilman Mark Levine, chair of the city’s health and hospital committee. Among those present were James Blair of Blair Funeral Home Services, John Golden, president of Metropolitan Funeral Directors Association, Meyer, Andrew Parver, director of operations of the Hebrew Burial Society, Rabah, Meir Weill of Misaskim and Rabbi Elchonon Zohn, president of the National Association of Chevra Kadisha.
Golden said that he was encouraged by the meeting with Levine who seemed very receptive to the concerns presented, telling the group that he would address the issues raised with DOH commissioner Dr. Mary Travis Bassett. Golden said that he hopes that the meeting will bear fruit and that the rollout will be delayed until all of the city’s doctors are enrolled in eVital and that the problems are resolved in order to avoid a repeat of last year’s failed launch.
“This is a big concern in the funeral industry,” said Golden, whose association represents more than 100 funeral homes and well over 500 undertakers. “Last year just didn’t work and we can’t have that again. The lines at the burial desk were so long that some people waited five hours to get a permit. We need to be able to take care of the families that we serve. It is the worst time in their lives and for their benefit, and the city’s as well, we need everything to be running smoothly so that city residents can bury their loved ones.”
Meyer has also been in touch with City Councilman Chaim Deutsch about the issue, with Deutsch voicing his full support for the coalitions’ efforts.
“It is critical that when the Department of Health relaunches eVital this fall, it does not repeat the mistakes of the failed attempt last year,” said Deutsch. “Input from experts at Misaskim and others will help the department to address the problems with the system, so there is no interruption or delay in burials. I will continue to foster communication between the coalition and the DOH to ensure that any issues are ironed out in advance.”