Former coroner alleges Health Department changed death certificates
July 15, 2021
CASPER — Former Fremont County Coroner Mark Stratmoen has alleged that the Wyoming Department of Health has changed and issued inaccurate death certificates in the last several months.
Citing confidentiality, Stratmoen did not give any specific examples of the changes he alleges, but said changes have been made to a minority of certificates checked by his office.
At least one other county coroner in Wyoming said he had also noticed changes being made without authorization. A Department of Health representative said an internal review found they had not “stepped outside of [the department’s] legal authority or violated administrative rules or procedure.”
Some of the more significant changes Stratmoen alleged include one death certificate which reportedly had the location of the death changed by 30 miles.
“That’s a misdirection that’s totally unnecessary,” Stratmoen said. “I can’t even tell you why somebody would change something like that, it makes no sense.”
Others, he said, have had causes of death changed, or in some cases multiple causes have been reduced to just one. Stratmoen said that can give a family, investigators or legal representatives a skewed impression of the case.
None of the changes were connected to COVID-19 deaths or pandemic reporting, Stratmoen said.
WDH spokesperson Kim Deti said in an email to the Star-Tribune that the department has “thoroughly reviewed” Stratmoen’s allegations and has not reported any wrongdoing.
“The department and the Attorney General’s office have been actively working with stakeholders in Fremont County and elsewhere to address any remaining concerns,” Deti said. “That effort was underway before Mr. Stratmoen issued his statement and will continue.”
Attorney General Bridget Hill did not respond to a request for comment on Thursday. Deti declined to specify whether there is an active investigation into Stratmoen’s claims or when that effort began.
According to Stratmoen, the alleged changes being made can affect legal proceedings involving the death, and in some cases have caused confusion and grief among the families of deceased people.
For example, Stratmoen said, families who come to visit the site where their relative died may be led to the wrong location if the certificate has been changed.
His main complaint, however, was that the department was allegedly failing to check with his office before making the changes. If questioned in court regarding altered records, Stratmoen said, he would have to testify under oath that the certificate was not accurate.
“In the last six months or so, it has come to light that Vital Records has not only violated the law, but their own rules in this regard,” Stratmoen’s initial statement said in late June.
The former coroner cited a section of the Wyoming Administrative Code, which states that a cause of death can only be changed with a signed statement from the coroner or physician who signed off on the certificate.
When he brought the issues up to the Department of Health, Stratmoen said he was told the changes were made to align with federal reporting guidelines. He said he wasn’t satisfied with that explanation.
“If it doesn’t fit somebody at that level’s arbitrary idea of what they want, then they changed it,” Stratmoen said. “You know, life and death don’t fit into nice tiny little neat boxes, and our obligation and requirement under the law is to be accurate.”
Stratmoen said at least one other county coroner in Wyoming had reportedly been experiencing the same changes to their death records, but did not specify which.
Big Horn County Coroner Del Atwood said in a statement to the Star-Tribune that his office had noticed “issues” with the certificates earlier in 2021, and brought them to the attention of the Department of Health.
Starting in February, Atwood said, the office has been working with the Big Horn County attorney and the state’s Vital Statistics department to address those concerns.
“We will be cooperating fully with any inquiry or investigation that will ensure the integrity and transparency in the completion of death certificates in the State of Wyoming,” Atwood said. “At this point I believe we should trust the process and allow the inquiry to continue.”
Natrona County Coroner James Whipps said he hasn’t had the same problems with Vital Statistics. For any change — whether it’s something as small as a grammar fix or something bigger like a reclassification — Whipps said he gets a call from the department to check first.
Stratmoen retired at the end of June, after 23 years working in the coroner’s office in Fremont County. Prior to his retirement, he was also president of the Wyoming County Coroner’s Association.