Advocates for the Jewish community and other faith groups warn that imminent plans to change the system for issuing death and burial permits in New York City could lead to significant delays for grieving families working to expedite the laying to rest of a loved one. Yet, the Department of Health is touting the benefits of the program and say they are ready to handle challenges as they arise.
An interfaith coalition has been working to address concerns about the new system for several months in discussions with the Department of Health (DOH) and other city officials. Yet as the system is set to be put into effect this coming Friday night, those warning of impasses say many of the most worrisome aspects have yet to be addressed.
The program, known as eVital, was first rolled out last October, but it crashed 40 minutes after going live and was taken down three days later. Rabbi Yanky Meyer, director and founder of Misaskim, says that, since then, little has been done to fix what he sees as the system’s more troubling aspects.
“There are serious issues with eVital that are sure to be a problem for people trying to bring their loved one to kevurah quickly,” he told Hamodia. “People should be ready for a mess this coming Sunday, and they should know that it’s not the funeral director’s fault, but that the blame belongs to the Department of Health.”
A DOH spokesman told Hamodia that eVital was a “necessary upgrade,” that would increase both security and efficiency and said that many of the issues that were present in the original model have been resolved.
“Since the initial pilot, we have worked with many stakeholders to address concerns and we have put measures in place to ensure that the rollout will support all who rely on it,” said Christopher Miller, the department’s press secretary.
He added that on the days surrounding the launch date, the DOH will be doubling its staff who will field issues related to eVital and keeping its “funeral desk” open overnight to deal with urgent requests for paper certificates.
For several years, the city has used the Electronic Vital Events Registration System (EVERS) to register births, deaths and burials. The program is used in several states and allows doctors and funeral homes to issue the necessary certificates in a relatively short period of time, under normal circumstances.
In 2014, the city began the $5.5 million project of developing eVital, which is exclusively designed for its use. One of its unique features is
that users sign in via mobile devices, using digital facial recognition. EVERS worked using fingerprints.
During the initial roll-out in 2017, many in the funeral industry complained that the facial recognition technology had not worked. Rabbi Meyer said that even if the kinks have been worked out, the idea is still problematic.
“How many times have you been in a hospital and your phone didn’t work, and if it does, think of a doctor who has to sign off on a death certificate in the middle of a surgery — now he has to stop, take off his mask and have someone bring him the phone, and if he decided to grow a beard, maybe it won’t recognize him,” he said.
Another problem that Rabbi Meyer pointed to was that fewer than half of the doctors registered to use EVERS have been signed up for access to eVital. The DOH says that they have conducted extensive one-on-one outreach to physicians and have 9600 signed up to date.
Since the beginning of the summer, funeral directors and representatives of several faith groups have been meeting with city officials to voice their concerns, together with Councilman Chaim Deutsch, whose office has hosted several discussions on the matter.
Advocates were successful in delaying a planned rollout from October 1, Shemini Atzeres, until October 12, but they feel that few changes have been made to the system.
“Our religious obligations should not be used as an experiment to test the system when we all know that there are still unresolved issues,” said Councilman Deutsch. “eVital should only be rolled out when the experts in the field are satisfied with the system.”
Kiydaar Saduddim of Muslim Funeral Services questioned why a functioning system needed to be replaced.
“The current system isn’t broken, so why are they trying to fix it?” he said. “Everything is working well now, so why are they introducing something new?”
One of the issues that Rabbi Meyer said was most troublesome is that while EVERS issues certificates immediately, barring any technical issues, eVital will place requests for both death and burial certificates in a queue with a built-in delay of 50-60 minutes. A technical glitch such as a spelling error would move the request back to the beginning of the queue.
The DOH says that the waiting time was built into the system at the request of many who use the system who wanted a grace period to ensure for the accuracy of their records and to save families the hassle and expense of changing official records.
As of Tuesday afternoon, Rabbi Meyer was still hopeful that a meeting between advocates and Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office could be arranged for Wednesday.
“We are very often pressed for time with burials, if it is trying to make shkiah or get in before the cemetery closes or [catch] a flight to Eretz Yisrael,” he said. “The DOH is telling us that with time everything will be worked out, but when we are dealing with a niftar, time is not something that we have to spare.
Updated Wednesday, October 10, 2018 at 2:15 pm .