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November 6, 2011

A government health agency has revoked the public’s access to a database of healthcare practitioner’s malpractice and other negative history, even though its records are anonymous, due to the pressure of one physician after a reporter figured out which record was his and published a story about him.

Established in 1986, the National Practitioner Data Bank (NPDB) is a database of healthcare practitioner’s malpractice payments, disciplinary actions and other negative history for use by hospitals, medical boards and insurers. From 1990 until September 1 of this year, there was also a Public Use File (PUF) of the database with healthcare practitioner names and identifying information omitted. According to The New York Times, the PUF of the database has “provided valuable information for many years to researchers and reporters investigating oversight of doctors, trends in disciplinary actions and malpractice awards. “

However, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) removed access to the Public Use File from its website on September 1, 2011. The action was in response to a letter from a physician’s attorney to HHS Division of Practitioner Data Banks Director Cynthia Grubbs, RN, JD, regarding a reporter’s intent to release an article that contained confidential information about the physician from the NPDB database.

Ms. Grubbs sent a warning letter on August 26, 2011 to the reporter stating that Federal Law protects NPDB database information and outlined the penalties for violation.

“The agency closed down the public use file of the National Practitioner Data Bank after Kansas City Star reporter Alan Bavley used information there to bolster a story about a Johnson County neurosurgeon who remained in good standing with the Kansas Board of Healing Arts despite a trail of malpractice lawsuits,” the Kansas City Star said in an editorial.

The Editorial contends that Bavley used information from the Public Use File, which identifies physicians only by a number, in conjunction with court documents and a broad number of other sources in determining which record in the PUF belonged to the neurosurgeon for the article Doctors with histories of alleged malpractice often go undisciplined, published September 3, 2011.

Prominent groups have pleaded for the reopening of the Public Use File, including the Investigative Reporters and Editors, the Association of Health Care Journalists, the Society of Professional Journalists, the National Association of Science Writers, the National Freedom of Information Coalition and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

Now U.S. Senator Charles Grassley (IA) has demanded answers and called for full restoration of the Public Use File.

“This database contains information intended for public consumption, and efforts to shutter access will be fought by those of us committed to transparency where public dollars and the public interest are at stake,” Grassley said in a press release.

He first sent a letter on October 7, 2011 to the Health Research Health Research and Services Administration regarding the agency’s decision to remove the National Practitioner Data Bank’s Public Use File. While the agency responded and included copies of correspondence between Grubbs, the physician and his attorney, and copies of the articles in question, it failed to provide all the information requested.

On November 3, 2011, Grassely wrote a letter to Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius calling for restoration of the Public Use File and for the person responsible for taking the PUF down to report to his office with all requested documentation.

“HRSA’s response makes it apparent that HRSA simply accepted the complaint of the physician involved at face value and jumped to conclusions about how Mr. Bavley obtained the information,” Grassely said in the letter. “Once HRSA learned of its mistake, it then compounded the error by shutting down access to information that Congress intended to be public through the PUF. All Mr. Bavley did was use publicly available data, and HRSA’s response to that was to shut down access to that data for everyone. Moreover, HRSA has still failed to restore the PUF to its website.“

One Comment

  1. Gravatar for Gus McDonald

    I cannot think of a more wrongheaded or potentially harmful kneejerk reaction to this case. While the records are anonymous and should rightfully remain so, the public absolutely has a right to review trends in medical malpractice cases. The phenomenon of one intrepid reporter unlawfully tracking down a surgeon with a history should be dealt with on its own merits, not by simply taking all the toys and going home.

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