Federal agency is pressured to re-post online database of doctors’ malpractice and disciplinary cases

U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley has joined journalists, academic researchers and consumer groups in calling on the Health Resources and Services Administration to put back online the National Practitioner Data Bank, a database of malpractice and disciplinary cases against doctors.

“In a strongly worded letter, the Iowa Republican, who has led investigations of fraud and waste in government health programs, said the now-removed file ‘serves as the backbone in providing transparency for bad-acting health care professionals’,” Duff Wilson of The New York Times reports. Grassley gave HRSA, part of the the Department of Health and Human Services, until Oct. 21 to hand over documents and answer a series of questions, ending with “What is your timeline for getting the database up and running again?”

For a PDF of Grassley’s letter, click here. Under pressure, the agency has scheduled a conference call on the issue for Thursday, Oct. 13, from 1 to 2 p.m. Eastern Time.

The database “was created in 1986 for hospitals, medical boards, insurers and others to share information so that bad doctors do not slip through cracks in reporting,” Wilson writes. The law makes doctors’ names confidential, but the database has a Public Use File for researchers and journalists, in which doctors are identified only by numbers.

Some journalists have been able to identify doctors using information from other sources, such as lawsuits. “After a complaint by one doctor identified by The Kansas City Star, the agency threatened the newspaper reporter with a fine, pulled the doctor’s file from its Web site on Sept. 1 and began a review of how to hide the identities better,” Wilson reports. “Its actions provoked protests” from the Association of Health Care Journalists, the Society of Professional Journalists, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and other groups. In a letter, they told HRSA, “Nothing in the Public Use File can be used to identify individuals if reporters or researchers don’t already know for whom they are searching.”

Grassley wrote, “It seems disturbing and bizarre that HRSA would attempt to chill a reporter’s First Amendment activity with threats of fines for merely ‘republishing’ public information from one source and connecting it with public information from another. A journalist’s shoe-leather reporting is no justification for such threats or for HRSA to shut down public access to information that Congress intended to be public.”

The Public Use File can be downloaded from the website of Investigative Reporters and Editors, one of the groups, protesting its removal from the HRSA site, but “that file will be more and more out-of-date as the dispute goes on,” Wilson notes. She also reports that Robert E. Oshel, associate director for research and disputes in the Division of Practitioner Data Banks, says the agency is misinterpreting the law. (Read more)

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