Incomplete Mortality Data Prompts New Lawsuit Against the Puerto Rico Department of Health

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Secretary of Health, Carlos Mellado López, and the Director of the Demographic Registry, Wanda Llovet Díaz.

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San Juan – Incomplete data on deaths from the last two years that the Demographic Registry delivered to the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI, in Spanish) prompted this organization to again sue Health Secretary Carlos Mellado López and the registry´s  Director Wanda Llovet Díaz.

The CPI’s new petition for mandamus, protected by the constitutional right of access to public information and filed in the San Juan Superior Court, asks that the Director of the Demographic Registry, an agency that is attached and responds to the Health Secretary, be ordered to fulfill its duty to deliver the updated death database for the years 2022 and 2023, up to the most recent available, as it has done on at least five previous occasions in response to lawsuits from the CPI and other entities.

CPI Executive Director Carla Minet said: “There are many angles to investigate regarding the deaths linked to the COVID-19 pandemic in Puerto Rico. As we did before, we periodically request the most updated data necessary for the mortality analysis, and again, we face obstacles from the Demographic Registry, which eliminates fundamental fields of the information that is needed to analyze and oversee.”

“As opposed to previous times, we recently received the latest data lacking certain information, for no valid reason, because they’re the same as those that have been previously included. The Department of Health once again refuses, using the same allegations that were already rejected by the Puerto Rico courts. This forces us to once again request judicial intervention so that the agencies are ordered to comply with the Transparency and Expedited Procedure for Access to Public Information Act (Act 141 of 2019) despite the same matter having been resolved with orders in prior court proceedings,” said CPI Executive Director, Carla Minet.

“It’s sad that the government is once again promoting legal disputes, committing more public resources to lost causes, and hindering the flow of public information,” said  Minet.

The type of data requested has allowed the CPI in the past to publish revealing investigations, including that when the Department of Health ended protective measures against the spread of COVID, it led to one of the highest spikes in deaths of the pandemic. The database was also used to identify cases of women murdered by their partners and send letters to their relatives to learn more about the cases, which gave way to the investigative series Sin madre por el machismo, which helped to understand the circumstances of femicides and the effect of this reality on minors who are orphaned, without support from the State, and on grandmothers who become caregivers. The document is essential for journalistic work.

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In 2009, journalist Omaya Sosa Pascual investigated the possible arrival of the H1N1 pandemic to Puerto Rico and its impact on the population. She was denied access to mortality data. The CPI sued the Demographic Registry, and the agency agreed to hand over the data, which allowed 500 specific cases and their stories to be documented.

Another series of lawsuits by the CPI against the Department of Health and the Demographic Registry took place during the investigation into deaths linked to Hurricane María. In February 2018, the CPI filed a writ of mandamus requesting that the agencies provide a copy of the cause of death database and all death certificates issued since September 18, 2017. The case evolved and resulted in several judicial orders against the Department of Health and in favor of the CPI.

“The use of this database allowed us to identify the victims, learn about their reality through interviews with their relatives, and reveal in our investigation Los Muertos de María that the mortality was much higher than the 64 deaths recognized by the government of Puerto Rico. As a result of our investigation, the government had to accept that there were almost 3,000 deaths,” said the editor of Special Projects and co-founder of the CPI, Omaya Sosa Pascual.

As part of another investigation into deaths linked to the COVID-19 pandemic in Puerto Rico, the CPI presented another mandamus in 2020 to obtain the mortality database for the years 2007 to 2020. Llovet Díaz complied, handed over the information and the parties submitted a joint motion agreeing that, to “avoid future controversies regarding the request and delivery of the documents and information requested here,” said requests would be channeled through the then Director of the Health Department’s Office of Communications and Public Affairs, as stated in the sentence.

For a CPI investigation into the administration of COVID-19 vaccines, the organization presented another similar legal appeal after failing to obtain complete and updated mortality data for 2020 and 2021. The agency provided the information, but hid countless fields previously disclosed alluding to the fact that they were confidential. The court again ordered the disclosure of the requested information.

The following year, journalist Jeniffer Wiscovitch Padilla, from the CPI, made similar requests regarding the updated deaths for 2021 and 2022, in the same terms as before. The Department of Health complied and further updates were subsequently repeated on several occasions.

The situation changed starting in May 2023 with the request from journalist Omaya Sosa Pascual about the updated rate in the mortality database for 2022 and so far in 2023. The Department of Health delivered a CD claiming that it contained what was requested, but to the CPI’s surprise and unlike the four previous deliveries, as well as four other instances in which the agencies complied or were obligated to do so by court orders, the file had several information fields hidden, such as the names, surnames and addresses of the deceased and informants, which were included in each and every one of the previous deliveries.

In an official letter, Mellado López invoked the provisions of the HIPAA Act (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) to refuse to provide the omitted information.

The CPI is represented in this case by Attorneys Luis José Torres Asencio and Steven P. Lausell Recurt of the Legal Clinic of the Inter American University Law School, where they are professors, and are assisted by students Camila V. Rivera Pérez, Lee C. Rodríguez Nogue, Luisa R. Sotero Franceschini and Jean C. Vizcarrondo Morales, as part of the Access to Information Project.

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