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Obama administration pressed on access to physician records

Patient advocacy groups and leading journalism associations are protesting a decision by the Obama administration to close public access to an online database of anonymous physician disciplinary and malpractice records.

The groups are calling on the Health Resources and Services Administration, or HRSA, to restore public access to the data, which journalists, researchers and consumer advocates have relied on to expose dangerous medical practices.

“Reporters for years have used this database to help document lax oversight of doctors by their state’s medical boards,” said Charles Ornstein, president of the Assn. of Health Care Journalists, one of three journalism groups that sent a letter to the HRSA administrator Thursday.

“They’ve found doctors with long trails of malpractice payouts who were never disciplined. They’ve found doctors who have been repeatedly suspended by hospitals but had clear licenses,” he continued. Ornstein, a senior reporter at ProPublica, is a former Los Angeles Times staff writer.

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The database, known as the National Practitioner Data Bank, does not identify physicians by name, a protection required by law. But reporters and others have used the data, in conjunction with other records and research, to report on specific physicians.

Most recently, the Kansas City Star published a story on Sept. 4 about physicians with long histories of alleged malpractice who had not been disciplined by the Kansas or Missouri medical boards.

That prompted HRSA to threaten the reporter with a fine and take down the database.

“It is important to understand that the law that created the National Practitioner Data Bank requires that information about individual practitioners [doctors, nurses, etc.] must remain confidential,” said HRSA spokesman Martin Kramer.

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“When HRSA became aware that a reporter in Kansas City was able to use the information in the Public Use File and other information to obtain details about a specific physician we had no choice but to take down the Public Use File.”

The journalism groups, including Investigative Reporters & Editors and the Society of Professional Journalists, said there was no violation of the law because the database did not identify the physicians -- other reporting did.

Similar protest letters were sent by Public Citizen and Consumers Union.

“We find it ironic that at a time in which other parts of [the Department of Health and Human Services] are becoming more transparent and even proposing to make detailed ratings of healthcare entities and providers available to the public, HRSA appears to be restricting access to information mandated by law to be made public,” said Dr. Michael Carome, deputy director of Public Citizen’s Health Research Group.

Kramer said HRSA is “working hard to find a way to make as much information as is legally allowed by law available as quickly as possible.”

noam.levey@latimes.com


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