Agency’s restrictions on data about disciplined doctors continue to get attention

The Kansas City Star and The Sacramento Bee ran editorials over the weekend to denounce the recent decision by the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration to place restrictions on the public use file of the National Practitioner Data Bank.

The Star says the restrictions “display an appalling disrespect for journalists and researchers and for the public’s right to gain information about the doctors to whom they entrust their health and safety.”

It calls the move a “clumsy attempt to restrict access to public information [that] promotes nothing but confusion and darkness.”

Meanwhile, The Bee says the Obama administration has “positioned itself on the side of protecting the privacy of doctors who maim patients.” It also suggests that President Obama reread the First Amendment.

On Sunday, the Society of Professional Journalists hosted AHCJ President Charles Ornstein, SPJ President John Ensslin and Kansas City Star reporter Alan Bavley for a discussion of the data bank and the importance of its information being open to the public without restrictions.

As regular Covering Health readers know, the public use file has been used regularly by reporters who have covered lax oversight of troubled doctors. When Bavley was working on such a story, however, a doctor he was investigating contacted HRSA and complained the data was being used improperly. That doctor’s complaints led to HRSA threatening Bavley with a fine, which it later backed down from, and pulling the data off of the website.

After protests from journalism organizations, consumer groups, academic researchers and U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, the agency republished the data file last Wednesday but placed restrictions on how it was to be used. In a letter to U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, the journalism groups called the new restrictions “ill-advised, unenforceable and probably unconstitutional. Restricting how reporters use public data is an attempt at prior restraint.”

Grassley also has expressed his disappointment in the restrictions: “HRSA is overreaching and interpreting the law in a way that restricts the use of the information much more than the law specifies.”

For more background, this timeline tracks the story:

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