Grassley Criticizes Removal of Doctor Discipline Data

U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) sent a letter today to the Health Resources and Services Administration, criticizing its decision to remove a public version of the National Practitioner Data Bank, which has helped reporters and researchers to expose serious gaps in the oversight of physicians.

“Shutting down public access to the data bank undermines the critical mission of identifying inefficiencies within our health care system – particularly at the expense of Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries,” Grassley wrote to HRSA Administrator Mary Wakefield. “More transparency serves the public interest.”

Grassley, ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, continued: “Generally speaking, except in cases of national security, the public’s business ought to be public. Providers receive billions of dollars in state and federal tax dollars to serve Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries. Accountability requires tracking how the money is spent.”

The National Practitioner Data Bank is a confidential system that compiles malpractice payouts, hospital discipline and regulatory sanctions against doctors and other health professionals. For years, HRSA has posted aggregate information from the data bank in a Public Use File that did not identify individual providers.

HRSA officials removed the public file from the data bank website last month because a spokesman said they believe it was used to identify physicians inappropriately. The Association of Health Care Journalists has protested the action, along with Investigative Reporters and Editors, Society of Professional Journalists, National Association of Science Writers, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and National Freedom of Information Coalition.

Grassley’s letter comes days after the official who created the Public Use File in the mid-1990s and managed it until 2008 said that HRSA was “erroneously interpreting the law” governing the data bank by removing the public version.

In a letter to AHCJ, Robert Oshel said HRSA officials have confused the requirements of the law.

“HRSA’s current management seems to confuse the law’s requirement that a public data file not permit use of its records to identify individual practitioners with a very different requirement, and one not in the law: that the file not allow the records of previously identified practitioners to be identified in the file,” Oshel wrote.

Oshel further wrote that HRSA’s view will “seriously hinder use of the file for important public policy research.”

In his letter to Wakefield, Grassley was sharply critical of a threat HRSA made to Kansas City Star Reporter Alan Bavley. After a complaint from a lawyer representing a doctor, HRSA threatened Bavley with civil money penalties if he ran a storybased on information from the data bank. HRSA did not pursue the fine, officials later said, because Bavley did not have access to confidential information. But the agency did remove the file from its website.

“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,” Grassley wrote.

Grassley asked Wakefield a series of questions and asked for responses by Oct. 21.

AHCJ President Charles Ornstein called on the Obama administration once again to restore access to the Public Use File. “Using this file, reporters across the country have preparedstories that have exposed holes in the oversight of doctors – and those stories have led to greater transparency and improved patient protections,” he said. “This information needs to be restored now.”

Pia Christensen is managing editor/online services at the Association of Health Care Journalists (AHCJ). She assists with the editing and production of AHCJ’s publications, including books, conference programs and the quarterly newsletter.

This post first appeared at Covering Health, the blog of AHCJ.