The Association of Health Care Journalists and five other journalism groups appealed to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to intervene in the dispute over the Public Use File of the National Practitioner Data Bank and restore access to this important data tool.
AHCJ was joined in its letter to Sebelius by 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. The groups have more than 15,000 members.
The U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration removed the Public Use File (PUF) from the data bank website earlier this month because officials believe it was used to identify physicians inappropriately.
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.
The groups took issue with a letter written last week by HRSA administrator Mary Wakefield, in which she defended the decision to remove the Public Use File from the agency’s website.
“We believe the stance taken by administrator Wakefield and HRSA staff is overly restrictive based on the law governing the data bank. We do not dispute that federal law precludes the administration from sharing confidential information from data bank reports, including the person being reported and the institution filing the report. We disagree with HRSA that the Public Use File, removed from the web earlier this month, did this.”
The letter also criticized HRSA’s research protocol under which reporters can now request data from the data bank as intrusive and unfair. The agency’s new web page about the Public Use File and how to make requests for data says: “At this time, a researcher must provide a proposal (including table shells) for their need of data. DPDB will review the request and approve or deny the request for data. DPDB will provide only the variables needed to complete the research.”
“We find it troubling that a federal agency now wants to judge the quality of reporters’ stories and make individual decisions about which one is worthy –perhaps putting officials in the position of denying requests that may make HRSA or the data bank look poor,” the letter said. “We don’t see any provisions in the act governing the data bank that gives HRSA the authority to deny research data as long as it doesn’t identify individuals.”
The groups said they stood ready to meet with Sebelius and work with her on a solution that will provide continued access to the Public Use File.
“Reporters have exposed dangerous lapses in oversight by state medical boards, prompting legislation to increase transparency and improve patient protections,” the letter said. “We hope you will agree that this is a matter of public concern and that you will urge HRSA to change course and immediately restore the Public Use File of the data bank.”
The letter to Sebelius followed a request for assistance to members of Congress last week.