INDIANAPOLIS – Leaders of three journalism organizations have objected to a federal government action taking down a once publicly available database containing important health services information.
The letter (included below) to Health Resources and Services Administration Administrator Mary Wakefield and Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was sent by the presidents of the Association of Health Care Journalists, Investigative Reporters and Editors, and the Society of Professional Journalists.
In sending the letter, the groups voiced their concern that removing the Public Use File of the National Practitioner Data Bank sets a bad precedent for information sharing and freedom of information. As the letter states, the file “provided invaluable information about the functioning of state medical boards and hospital disciplinary systems.”
SPJ President Hagit Limor strongly disapproved of the action, saying: “In one stroke, the very administration that promised greater transparency excluded information of obvious public value to patients across this country, information that had been accessible to journalists for years. This is clearly outrageous.”
AHCJ President Charles Ornstein expressed a similarly strong reaction: “We are troubled that the Obama administration appears to have placed the interests of physicians ahead of the safety of patients.”
The groups cited of special concern a letter from HRSA officials threatening monetary fines against a Kansas City Star reporter if he used information in the data set – information that was publicly available and previously published by HRSA.
“We are also stunned that a public servant has the hubris to threaten a health care reporter for doing his job,” said IRE President Manny Garcia. “HRSA should be delighted that journalists are using public information to help saves lives, but in this instance the response is: get lost or get fined.”
Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press. For more information about SPJ, please visit www.spj.org.
September 15, 2011
Dear Administrator Wakefield and Secretary Sebelius:
We are writing today to request that you take immediate steps to republish online the Public Use File (PUF) for the National Practitioner Data Bank and to express our strong disapproval of HRSA’s attempted intimidation of a reporter.
HRSA officials removed the database from the data bank website earlier this month because they believe it was used to identify physicians inappropriately. Spokesman Martin Kramer said it will be at least six months before a public file is returned to the website, if that happens at all.
As the presidents of journalism organizations representing more than 13,200 members, we are troubled that HRSA has taken down a data resource that has been available for years to the general public, the media and researchers.
The Public Use File, while it didn’t identify doctors by name or address, provided invaluable information about the functioning of state medical boards and hospital disciplinary systems. Reporters for years have used the data to identify flaws in their states’ regulatory systems that have led to patient harm. As a result of these stories, states have enacted new legislation and medical boards have taken steps to investigate problem doctors.
Furthermore, we are deeply concerned that HRSA sent a threatening letter on Aug. 26 (see attached) to Alan Bavley, a health reporter at the Kansas City Star. The letter, signed by Division of Professional Data Banks director Cynthia Grubbs, said that Bavley could be subject to a civil monetary penalty of up to $11,000 if he identified a physician based upon confidential information in the data bank.
By releasing the Public Use File, HRSA must have concluded under 42 USC 11137 (the Health Care Quality Improvement Act of 1986, section 437) that it didn't permit identification of anyone. By simply using the material HRSA had put online, Bavley did not violate any regulations and should not have been subject to such blatant intimidation.
We hope HRSA embraces these watchdog efforts and puts patient safety atop its list of concerns. We believe HRSA’s previous Public Use File struck the appropriate balance in making information available to the public while protecting the identity of doctors. If anything, the agency erred on the side of physician privacy.
Finally, if HRSA now believes that the public use file could lead to the inappropriate identification of physicians, we encourage HHS leadership to seek a change in the law to allow for this information to be disclosed.
Our organizations stand ready to work with HRSA and HHS on this issue.
Charles Ornstein President, Association of Health Care Journalists
Manny Garcia President Investigative Reporters & Editors
Hagit Limor President, Society of Professional Journalists