Online hospital inspection reports open door to power reporting #ahcj13

Alan Scher Zagier

About Alan Scher Zagier

Alan Scher Zagier is a reporter at The Associated Press. He is attending Health Journalism 2014 on an AHCJ-Missouri Health Journalism Fellowship, which is supported by the Missouri Foundation for Health.

Any reporter who has sought public records from the feds knows the practical nightmare that is the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).  Delays of months, years and even decades before receiving requested documents or data are not uncommon.

Now, after years of negotiations with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), the Association of Health Care Journalists is offering both reporters and the general public instant online access to thousands of federal inspection reports for hospitals nationwide with a searchable news application at hospitalinspections.org.

AHCJ board president Charles Ornstein of ProPublica helped unveil the site at a Saturday morning news briefing in Boston.

“Until now, you weren’t able to see what [hospitals] were doing, because you had to request all these in PDF format, and compare them [individually],” he said. “Now, you can actually use the power of data to find examples, and write that story.

The news app was developed by Ornstein, AHCJ Executive Director Len Bruzzese, AHCJ’s special projects director Jeff Porter and Chase Davis, an assistant editor for interactive news at The New York Times, with the help of a $42,500 grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

The database consists of complaint-driven inspection reports of acute-care hospitals and critical-access hospitals in rural areas by the federal agency since January 2011. Users can search for facilities in their local community, state, or region, or assess trends and patterns using keyword searches such as “wrong site surgery” or “immediate jeopardy.” The database will be updated quarterly.

While the new site provides a powerful snapshot, Ornstein cautioned that the database is far from complete. Routine hospital inspections are not included. Nor are deficiency reports for psychiatric and long-term care hospitals. Reporters must still contact hospitals or CMS directly to obtain the corrective action responses those institutions are required to file. And the federal agency acknowledges wide variances in its own data, depending upon how aggressive its regional offices and state health departments are in updating the information.

AHCJ is now turning its attention to persuading The Joint Commission, the largest private accreditor of hospitals, to make public its inspection reports from both complaints and routine check-ups. As a private agency, the commission is not bound by FOIA. The commission has rejected two previous requests from AHCJ for the information.

AHCJ members can tap into lots of information beyond the deficiency notices, from tips on how to use the federal form CMS-2567 as a starting point in your reporting to suggestions on how to respond to institutional inertia in response to the shortcomings disclosed by these inspection reports.

As a reporter always on the lookout for new sources of quick and readily available data — and one who’s been stymied by federal and state foot-dragging on traditional public records requests, I look forward to exploiting this resource to its fullest, and commend AHCJ for setting an example that other journalism membership organizations will hopefully emulate.