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California Rations Birth, Death Certificates Amid Security Paper Shortage


Even in our digital world, paper is still king when it comes to life and death - that is, birth certificates and death certificates. Some states, including South Carolina and California, use a certain security enabled paper to print those records. And that paper is suddenly in short supply. The Ohio company that produced it for years unexpectedly shut down last month. In South Carolina, that meant a short period of rationing death certificates. Families could only get five copies per deceased relatives. It's a problem for settling estates, transferring bank accounts, claiming insurance policies. And right now, some counties in California are rationing both death and birth certificates. Melody Gutierrez of the San Francisco Chronicle has been covering that, and she joins us now. Why has there been such a reliance on one company for this special paper?

MELODY GUTIERREZ: This company was supplying each of the 58 counties in the state. And one of the reasons is that they were the only company in the United States that produced a specific type of printing that was required under California law - intaglio printing. Other states have, you know, similar security measures in their documents, whether it's watermarks or florescent fibers, printed on chemically sensitive paper. You know, there's a wide variety, and California requires all of those. They just have the additional step of requiring this intaglio print, which is a raised print that creates kind of a textured look that makes it difficult if you were going to try to photocopy it.

SIEGEL: Now, how much of this paper does California have left?

GUTIERREZ: It's hard to say. Each of the 58 counties has their own different supply because each of these birth certificates and death certificates say the name of the county at the top. So it's not something they can share within the counties. I've heard from counties that are, you know, on their last month of supply here, and they're really starting to ration. But it seems like most of them have between a four- to six-month supply.

SIEGEL: I mentioned some of the trouble families face with dealing with a death, say, in the family. What are other problems that people are facing because of this shortage of official documents?

GUTIERREZ: Well, this is the time of year that kids are going back to school, so families need birth certificates for that. Anything from Little League to all of the different things that you sign up a child for that requires a birth certificate could create issues. I know that, you know, marriage certificates are also impacted by this. But death certificates seems to be the one where people need multiple copies. I think the - on average, to deal with somebody's estate, most people need about 10 copies of a death certificate.

SIEGEL: What's California going to do? Can't they locate somebody else who'll do this printing for them?

GUTIERREZ: In the short term, the plan, according to the Counties Association, is to use a Canadian company that is able to produce these. So they're working to secure that contract now. But long term, they want to look at the - turn to the legislature and ask whether or not this intaglio type of printing is needed since there are so few companies, you know, worldwide that are able to produce it. So they are planning on going, in 2016, to bring this up in the legislature for them to actually review all of the different security measures and looking forward, what would be the best method.

SIEGEL: That still leaves a lot of births, deaths, weddings and Little League registrations between now and then.

GUTIERREZ: Right. And so that's why they're turning to the Canadian company for sort of a short-term supply. I think the hope is that it will take 12 weeks once they secure the contract to actually get the paper in hand and so that - you are starting to see different counties looking at rationing one per person for these different certificates. And as you know, with death certificates, that's just going to create a lot of issues.

SIEGEL: Well, Melody Gutierrez of the San Francisco Chronicle, thanks for talking with us.

GUTIERREZ: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Melody Gutierrez is a political reporter for the Chronicle, and she spoke to us from Capital Public Radio in Sacramento. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.