About AHCJ: General News

Journalism organizations ask HRSA to clarify how it will exercise restrictions Date: 12/22/11

The Association of Health Care Journalists and five other journalism organizations asked federal health officials this week to specify how they plan to enforce new rules governing access to the public version of the National Practitioner Data Bank.

In a letter to Mary Wakefield, administrator of the Health Resources and Services Administration, the groups continued to express disappointment in the agency’s restrictions on the data bank’s Public Use File. In the past, reporters have used the file to expose faulty oversight of doctors by state medical boards.

The Health Resources and Services Administration removed the public file from its website in September after a complaint from a doctor who complained information on him was used inappropriately. The agency republished the data last month but put in place restrictions on how the data could be used.

Among the restrictions is a provision that bars users from matching data in the Public Use File with other data sources to identify physicians. If journalists or others are found to have violated the provision, they could be required to return the data and be barred from receiving it in the future.

In the letter to Wakefield, sent Wednesday, the groups asked for answers to several questions:

  1. What process will HRSA follow to determine whether a reporter has violated the agreement? If a reporter identifies a doctor in a story and also had access to the Public Use File, how will the agency find out whether the reporter used the file to identify the doctor or got the information from another source? Will HRSA ask to see notes and talk to sources? What will the agency do if reporters decline to discuss their reporting methods beyond what appears in their stories?
  2. What recourse will reporters have if they believe they have been unfairly barred from future access to the file?
  3. If you ask a reporter to return data, will you take any steps to ensure the data hasn’t been copied or saved elsewhere? If so, what will those steps be?
  4. How will HRSA address stories written based on copies of the Public Use File downloaded before Sept. 1? Such files are available without restriction on the websites of journalism organizations, and reporters do not need to sign any agreement to access them. Will reporters face penalties if they use the information in a way that HRSA objects to?

AHCJ president Charles Ornstein said he continues to believe that the new restrictions are both ill-advised and likely unconstitutional. But he added, “If HRSA intends to stick to them, it’s imperative that journalists understand how they will be enforced before deciding whether to use this information.”

Other groups signing the letter were Investigative Reporters and 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.

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

For more background, please see AHCJ’s Right to Know page or the links below: