About AHCJ: General News

Former Practitioner Data Banks official says HRSA ‘erroneously interpreting the law’ Date: 10/03/11

See an interactive timeline of the National Practitioner Data Bank controversy.

Oct. 2: Former Practitioner Data Banks official says HRSA ‘erroneously interpreting the law’
Oshel's letter & statement (PDF)
Letter to Sebelius & Wakefield (PDF)

Sept. 28: Journalists turn to Sebelius for access to National Practitioner Data Bank file
Letter to Sebelius (PDF)

Sept. 22: Agency declines to restore public data
Letter from HRSA (PDF)

See how reporters have used NPDB’s public use file to expose gaps in oversight of doctors

Sept. 21: More journalism groups join effort, send letters to Congress to restore access
Letter to members of Congress

Articles, editorials about public access to the NPDB public use file (PDF)

Sept. 15, 2011: AHCJ, other journalism organizations protest removal of data from public website
HRSA letter to Bavley (PDF)

Get the NPDB public use file

Investigative Reporters and Editors, working with AHCJ and the Society of Professional Journalists, has posted the data for download, free to the public.

A former federal official criticized a decision by the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration for removing the Public Use File of the National Practitioner Data Bank from the agency's website - a major development as journalism groups fight to restore access to the important tool.

Robert Oshel, who created the Public Use File in the mid-1990s and managed it until his retirement in 2008, said in a statement released to the Association of Health Care Journalists on Sunday that HRSA is "erroneously interpreting the law" governing the data bank.

Six journalism organizations - AHCJ, Investigative Reporters & Editors, the Society of Professional Journalists, the National Association of Science Writers, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and the National Freedom of Information Coalition - forwarded Oshel's statement to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and HRSA Administrator Mary Wakefield with a letter again asking that the data be restored to the website.

The National Practitioner Data Bank is a confidential system that compiles malpractice payouts, hospital discipline and regulatory sanctions against doctors and other health professionals. For years, HRSA has made a public version of it available without identifying information about the health providers.

HRSA officials removed the public file from the data bank website last month because a spokesman said they believe it was used to identify physicians inappropriately.

But in his letter to AHCJ, Oshel said HRSA officials have confused the requirements of the law.

"HRSA's current management seems to confuse the law's requirement that a public data file not permit use of its records to identify individual practitioners with a very different requirement, and one not in the law: that the file not allow the records of previously identified practitioners to be identified in the file," Oshel wrote.

Oshel further wrote that HRSA's view will "seriously hinder use of the file for important public policy research."

"For example, it will be impossible to identify state licensing boards which are not taking action to protect the public from physicians with records of repeated malpractice payments and serious sanctions against their hospital clinical privileges based on the quality of their care or their behavior," he wrote.

As he notes in his letter, Oshel served as associate director for research and disputes for HRSA's Division of Practitioner Data Banks, which operates the National Practitioner Data Bank, from 1997 until his retirement in 2008. Among other duties, he personally designed the Data Bank's Public Use File in about 1995 and oversaw its development and quarterly updating.

AHCJ President Charles Ornstein said Oshel's letter reaffirmed what AHCJ and five other journalism groups are fighting for. He said the Public Use File has been a vital tool for journalists writing about insufficient oversight of physicians in their states. Without such articles, some unsafe doctors would very likely continue to be practicing with clean licenses and patient protection legislation in several states likely would not have been enacted.

"It is abundantly clear that HRSA made a mistake in taking the Public Use File offline, putting physicians' interests ahead of patient safety," Ornstein said. "With Robert Oshel's detailed statement, we call on HRSA and HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to make the right decision and restore access to the public version immediately."

In his letter, Oshel also criticized the process that HRSA introduced as an interim way for reporters and researchers to request data from the data bank. To get information, individuals must disclose the focus of their work and HRSA officials must approve - or reject the request. If the request is granted, HRSA officials will be the arbiters of what data fields an individual needs to complete the research.

"I believe HRSA's current policy is contrary to the law," he wrote.

Earlier coverage