Tag Archives: federal government

Reporters: Federal public affairs staffers block access to information

Pia Christensen

About Pia Christensen

Pia Christensen (@AHCJ_Pia) is the managing editor/online services for AHCJ. She manages the content and development of healthjournalism.org, coordinates social media efforts of AHCJ and assists with the editing and production of association guides, programs and newsletters.

Reporters who cover federal government agencies say they face impediments to getting information to the public because of interference from public affairs officers, according to a survey released by the Society of Professional Journalists. [Press release]sunshine-week1

About 70 percent of the 146 journalists who responded to the survey said they had a positive relationship with the public information officers with whom they work, and most reported that officers quickly respond to their queries most of the time.

However, overwhelmingly, comments from the surveyed journalists indicated increasing frustration at what they perceive as efforts by agencies to control the message to the public. “PAOs tend to make up information,” stated one respondent. “You can never trust the information they provide. They make our jobs almost impossible and they treat journalists with barely any professionalism.”

Carolyn S. Carlson, lead author of “Mediated Access: Journalists’ Perceptions of Federal Public Information Officer Media Control,” notes that reporters are “running into interference rather than assistance from the very people hired by the government to help them. Public affairs officers need to facilitate media coverage, not interfere or block it.”

The survey reveals that reporters have to get approval from public affairs officials before interviewing sources, something AHCJ and other journalism groups have protested in the past, and some agencies are not allowing interviews of employees. About 84 percent reported their interviews have been monitored by PIOs, another issue AHCJ has written about.

Journalists agreed that government control over who is interviewed is a form of censorship and that the public is not getting vital information as a result of these controls.

The survey was conducted by Carlson, an assistant professor of communication at Kennesaw State University in Kennesaw, Ga., and David Cuillier, director of the School of Journalism at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Ariz., on behalf of the SPJ Freedom of Information Committee, of which both are members. They were assisted by Kennesaw journalism student Lindsay Tulkoff.

Tell us about your experiences with HHS

Tomorrow AHCJ will hold our quarterly conference call with the HHS media office. This usually includes a summary of our members’ experiences with the various HHS media offices (CDC, FDA, NIH, NIDA, CMS, etc), as well as discussion of specific issues.

As always, we depend on you to inform these discussions. Have you interacted with HHS or any of its divisions in recent months? Felice Freyer, chair of AHCJ’s Right to Know Committee, would like to hear from AHCJ members. Please send her a quick note describing what happened, whether it was positive or negative. Are there any concerns you’d like us to raise with them? Please send your comments to felice.freyer@cox.net or share them in the comments below.

Journalism organizations offer data government blocked from public

Jeff Porter

About Jeff Porter

Jeff Porter is the special projects director for AHCJ and plays a lead role in planning conferences, workshops and other training events. He also leads the organization's data collection and data instruction efforts.

Another development in the protest by three key journalism groups to the Obama administration’s decision to block public access to a public database of physician discipline and malpractice: Now, Investigative Reporters and Editors, working with the Association of Health Care Journalists and the Society of Professional Journalists, has posted the data for download, free to the public.

The data are posted for the entire U.S. in the original text format with documentation. IRE has also made available state-by-state Excel spreadsheet files.

On Thursday, the groups sent a letter protesting the decision to pull offline a the Public Use File of the National Practitioner Data Bank. The government has made this file available online for years, and reporters have used it to call attention to lax oversight of physicians across the country.

The public version of the database does not identify physicians by name or address, but it does provide other useful information about hospital sanctions, malpractice payouts and state disciplinary actions against every doctor in the country.

“We applaud IRE for making this data available for free to the media, researchers and the public,” said Charles Ornstein, AHCJ’s president. “While the government has decided that this ‘public use file’ should no longer be public, our organizations believe that it continues to be a critical resource. I encourage reporters, even those who have never used it before, to look for stories within it now.”

Journalists have used the data for years to draw attention to troubled physicians and state inaction. Recent examples include the St. Louis Post Dispatch, the Duluth (Minn) News-Tribune and The Kansas City Star. Other examples over the years have included The Hartford (Conn.) Courant and the Raleigh, N.C., News & Observer.

The U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration threatened a reporter from The Kansas City Star with financial penalties if he proceeded to write a story about a local neurosurgeon using information he gleaned from the public version of the database on the agency’s website. The newspaper published its story anyway on Sept. 4. The doctor’s attorney complained to the agency, prompting officials to remove the database from its website on Sept. 1.

Several news outlets – The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Reuters and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch – are following the story.

AHCJ, other journalism organizations protest removal of data from public website

Pia Christensen

About Pia Christensen

Pia Christensen (@AHCJ_Pia) is the managing editor/online services for AHCJ. She manages the content and development of healthjournalism.org, coordinates social media efforts of AHCJ and assists with the editing and production of association guides, programs and newsletters.

The Association of Health Care Journalists, joined by the Society of Professional Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors, sent a letter to the Obama administration today protesting its decision to pull offline a public database of physician discipline and malpractice payments.

Read the letter sent by the journalism organizations to Mary K. Wakefield, administrator of the Health Resources and Services Administration.

Stories using the NPDB

The Kansas City Star

• Doctors with histories of alleged malpractice often go undisciplined
• Obama’s HHS shuts down public access to doctor malpractice data

Duluth (Minn.) News Tribune

• AHCJ article: Duluth News Tribune exposes malpractice allegations
• As Duluth hospital reaped millions, surgeon racked up complaints
• Multiple allegations against former St. Luke’s doctor
• Ailing patients speak out about former Duluth doctor
• Wisconsin restricts former Duluth doctor’s license
• In Texas, former Duluth surgeon may be sanction-free
• Federal database of malpractice cases doesn’t make public doctors’ names, or where they practice

Propublica

States Fail to Report Disciplined Caregivers to Federal Database

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

• Reporters encounter hospital’s lack of transparency
• Tip sheet from Bernhard & Kohler on researching health professionals.
• Award entry: Who Protects the Patients?
• Serious medical errors, little public information
• Caution urged with facedown restraints
• Doctor lost hospital privileges but kept clean record
• Girl, 16, dies during restraint at an already-troubled hospital

Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

• Dangerous Doctors
• AHCJ article: Records show ‘dangerous doctors’ rarely face discipline
• Tip sheet from Gina Barton on state oversight of health professionals

Connecticut Health Investigative Team

• Disciplined Docs Practice Freely In State

West Hawaii Today

Medical malpractice in Hawaii
Diagnosis-related claims among top reasons for suit

Public Citizen

• Hospitals avoid reporting disciplined docs: The nonprofit group released a report showing that hospitals nationwide are taking advantage of  loopholes to avoid reporting disciplined physicians to a national database.  The Miami Herald‘s John Dorscher, the Detroit Free Press‘s Patricia Anstett and the Contra Costa Times‘ Sandy Kleffman reported local versions of the story that are no longer available online.

Earlier stories about access to NPDB:

• Data Mine reports on access to practitioner data: The Center for Public Integrity focuses on the National Practitioner Databank and the lack of public access to information in the database.
• Access to list of disciplined health workers in limbo: NPR’s Joseph Shapiro looked into the status of the Healthcare Integrity and Protection Data Bank.
• Public Citizen posted an open letter to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius explaining why the database is important, and details the consequences of keeping it under wraps.

AHCJ, SPJ and IRE called for the government to immediately restore access to the Public Use File of the National Practitioner Data Bank. The government has made this file available online for years, and reporters have used it to call attention to lax oversight of physicians across the country.

Pursuant to the law, the public version of the database does not identify physicians by name or address, but it does provide other useful information about hospital sanctions, malpractice payouts and state disciplinary actions against every doctor in the country.

As an example, the database would allow a reporter or researcher to discover that certain, unnamed physicians have been sanctioned repeatedly by their hospitals but never were disciplined by their state’s medical board. It would also be possible to find doctors with lengthy trails of malpractice who continued to enjoy clear licenses.

The groups also expressed their deep disappointment that the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration threatened a reporter from The Kansas City Star with financial penalties if he proceeded to write a story about a local neurosurgeon using information he gleaned from the public version of the database on the agency’s website. The newspaper published its story anyway on Sept. 4. The doctor’s attorney complained to the agency, prompting officials to remove the database from its website on Sept. 1.

The government said that it had to act now because reporters were able to link information in the data bank to specific doctors, and the law prohibits the public use file from identifying doctors. A HRSA spokesman said the data bank will be offline for at least six months and may never return unless the physician privacy concerns are adequately addressed.

AHCJ President Charles Ornstein said he was puzzled by HRSA’s sudden action because reporters have used the public version of the data bank for years to assist in their reporting and learn additional details about physicians they already had been researching.

“We are troubled that the Obama administration appears to have placed the interests of physicians ahead of the safety of patients,” Ornstein said. “Attempting to intimidate a reporter from using information on a government website is a serious abuse of power.”

Stories written by reporters using the public version of the National Practitioner Data Bank have drawn attention to troubled physicians and state inaction. Recent examples include the St. Louis Post Dispatch, the Duluth (Minn) News-Tribune and the Star. Other examples over the years have included The Hartford (Conn.) Courant and the Raleigh, N.C., News & Observer.

Some of these stories have resulted in new legislation and other steps that protect patients, by increasing transparency and sometimes toughening requirements on doctors.

The groups wrote that if HRSA determines the public version of the database violates the law in any way, it should seek swift legislative changes to remedy the problem and once again make the database available.

“In one stroke, the very administration that promised greater transparency not only excludes information of obvious public value to patients across this country but threatens legal action against a reporter for using public records,” said SPJ President Hagit Limor. “This is clearly outrageous.”

IRE President Manny Garcia said, “The removal of the Public Use File – whose very name means for public use – eliminates a valuable tool for journalists whose goal is to educate and protect the public. This database has allowed reporters to uncover flaws that have toughened legislation, and without a doubt, saved the lives of patients across the country.

“We are also stunned that a public servant has the hubris to threaten a health care reporter for doing his job. 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.”