By John Ensslin, 2011-12 SPJ President | October 10th, 2011
Imagine, God forbid, that you were to undergo brain surgery in the near future.
Wouldn’t you want to know if your surgeon had been a defendant in multiple malpractice lawsuits in more than one state?
Of course you would. And thanks to some intrepid reporters who dug through public records, readers in several U.S. cities were able to make informed decisions as to their choice of physician.
But that kind of skillful reporting – the sort of work journalists should be doing in every city – is at risk today because of the federal government’s recent decision to retract and disable a valuable public use file of a national data bank.
The National Practitioner Data Bank is a confidential system that the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration uses to track malpractice settlements and disciplinary actions against doctors and other health care professionals.
For years, the HRSA also has made available a public file in which the identities of the providers were scrubbed but the data on the malpractice outcomes and disciplinary cases were available.
By comparing the anonymous data in the public file against other existing public records, reporters in Minnesota, Kansas, North Carolina, Missouri and Virginia have been able to report stories exposing serious gaps in the monitoring of these cases.
The Association of Health Care Journalists has tracked this issue closely and has some examples of these stories plus comments from reporters on how they used the data bank’s public file.
Evidently, these stories have produced a backlash from those who would prefer the public be kept in the dark on such matters. On Sept. 1, the HRSA shut down the public use file of the data bank that previously had been posted on its website.
It gets worse.
The agency also sent a letter to Kansas City Star reporter Alan Bavley, threatening him with an $11,000 civil fine if his paper published a story that used confidential information from the data bank.
The Star – rightfully – went ahead and published the story based upon Bavley’s use of the public portion of the data bank’s public file and other available public documents.
The threatened fine is particularly galling. When I travelled to Cambodia to train journalists there a few years ago, one of the more outrageous tactics of the country’s regime was to levy huge fines on journalists who wrote things the government did not like.
My Cambodian friends – who admire and view our First Amendment protections as a model of the way a free press ought to be – would be dismayed to read of a U.S. official here “going Cambodian” on a journalist whose work was based upon public records.
SPJ joined other journalism groups – led by AHCJ – to protest this expansion of secrecy regarding the data bank and express concern about the threatened fine.
So far, our protest has not resulted in the restoration of the data bank’s public use file.
In a Sept. 21 letter, an HRSA official informed us that the agency is “reconfiguring” its formerly public file to make it more difficult for anyone to use the data to identify any health care practitioner.
As the Simon and Garfunkel song goes, “Hello, darkness, my old friend.”
But there is hope. Our campaign has found some interesting allies.
One is a former HRSA administrator whose job formerly included overseeing the data bank’s public use file.
Robert Oshel was an associate director at HRSA, where he worked from 1987 until his retirement in 2008. Among his duties was to design the data bank’s public use file and oversee its quarterly updates.
In a letter to AHCJ, Oshel wrote that the current administration, “in erroneously interpreting the law,” took the data bank’s public file offline.
Our fight also drew support last week from U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, who wrote a letter to HRSA officials criticizing the removal of the public use file of the data bank.
“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. “More transparency serves the public interest.”
Where this dispute is heading is hard to say. What is clear is that AHCJ, SPJ and our other journalism colleagues will keep up the pressure to restore the data bank’s public use file.
What can you do? Well, for starters HRSA has scheduled a conference call to discuss the data bank’s public use at 1 p.m., Thurs., Oct. 13. Here’s a link to the conference call info.
Here also is a timeline on this issue.
Charles Ornstein, president of the Association of Heath Care Journalists, has asked that as many journalists as possible dial into the conference. I intend to do so. I hope you will, too.