Six leading journalism organizations are calling on Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to immediately restore public access to a federal database that contains statistical information on the malpractice and disciplinary histories of thousands of doctors nationwide.
The National Practitioner Data Bank took its public-use file off its website on Sept. 1 after it learned that The Kansas City Star was able to glean information about a Johnson County neurosurgeon from anonymous data in the files. For many years, other newspapers had similarly identified doctors from the public-use file without repercussions.
The databank's action created a storm of protest by journalists and such patient-safety advocates as Consumers Union and Public Citizen that consider the file valuable for uncovering deficiencies in the way doctors are regulated.
Recently, the National Practitioner Data Bank's parent agency, the Health Resources and Services Administration, said researchers could request specific data, but it retained the option to deny their requests. In the past, anyone could download the full public-use file directly from the Data Bank website.
“We find it troubling that a federal agency now wants to judge the quality of reporters' stories and make individual decisions about which one is worthy -- perhaps putting officials in the position of denying requests that may make HRSA or the Data Bank look poor,” said a letter sent Tuesday to Sebelius by the journalism groups.
“We don't see any provisions in the act governing the Data Bank that gives HRSA the authority to deny research data as long as it doesn't identify individuals.”
The groups calling for restoration of the public-use file include the Association of Health Care Journalists, Investigative Reporters & Editors, the National Association of Science Writers, the National Freedom of Information Coalition, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Society of Professional Journalists.
Mike Robinson, an HHS public affairs specialist, said Wednesday that the department had received the letter but had no statement to make.
The National Practitioner Data Bank is an HHS agency that compiles information about malpractice payouts, hospital discipline and regulatory sanctions against doctors and other health professionals. State medical boards, hospitals and insurance plans use this information when assessing applications for licenses or staff privileges.
Only its public-use file, which removes names and other identifying information, has been available to journalists or other members of the public.
The Star employed the public-use file to investigate how the Kansas and Missouri medical boards discipline doctors with extensive histories of malpractice payouts.
In a story published Sept. 4, The Star reported finding 21 doctors in the two states who had 10 or more payouts but had not been disciplined.
The Star story also detailed the history of one of the 21 doctors, neurosurgeon Robert Tenny. The newspaper was able to identify Tenny in the Data Bank by comparing the information to court records.
After being contacted by The Star for comment about lawsuits and information in the Data Bank, Tenny's attorney complained to the Data Bank.
The Data Bank then sent a letter to the Star notifying it of civil fines that can be imposed for improper use of its confidential information.
The Star used only the public-use file and did not remove from its story material about Tenny discovered there. HRSA has not fined The Star.
In their letter to Sebelius, the journalism groups called the letter to The Star threatening.
“A threat against a reporter is not a moot point just because HRSA didn't fine him,” they said. “Such actions by the federal government could have a chilling effect based on a news organization's ability -- and willingness -- to stand up to government fines and local lawsuits.”