Tag Archives: doctor discipline

Senators request inquiry into state medical boards

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 AHCJ's social media efforts and edits and manages production of association guides, programs and newsletters.

Three senators are asking the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to investigate the oversight provided by state medical boards after several recent media reports questioning the supervision of physicians in the country.statemedboards-senate

Senators Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Max Baucus (D-Mont.) sent a letter to Daniel Levinson, HHS inspector general, on Wednesday, calling on his office to undertake the review and assess the quality of state boards on a variety of levels.

The senators cited recent reports in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the St. Louis Post Dispatch and the New Haven Independent Connecticut Health Investigative Team,* all of which pointed to lax oversight of doctors in their states.

“Since the HHS-OIG has not issued a comprehensive evaluation of state medical boards in more than 15 years, it is critical that the HHS-OIG evaluate the effectiveness of state medical boards and provide recommendations to enhance their organizations’ efforts within each state and across state boundaries,” they wrote. “With the adoption of advanced medical technologies, such as teleradiology, and an increase in physicians holding medical licenses in two or more states, it is becoming increasingly important that states issue timely board actions and coordinate licensure actions to protect the public from unqualified or marginally proficient practitioners.”

The letter asks the inspector general to suggest ways to improve and to determine whether sanctions by Medicare against doctors are being reported to state medical boards and to the National Practitioner Data Bank, a federally run database of discipline imposed against doctors and other health professionals.

As readers of this blog know, AHCJ has taken a leadership role in criticizing the Obama administration for restricting reporters’ access to a public version of the National Practitioner Data Bank, used by the media to write stories such as those highlighted in the letter.

AHCJ regularly holds training sessions for members on how to better cover the quality of health professionals in their states.

* Correction: The senators’ letter incorrectly cites the New Haven Independent for stories that were actually written by Lisa Chedekel of the Connecticut Health Investigative Team, a nonprofit project of the Online Journalism Project.

Journalism groups protest HRSA restrictions to Sebelius

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 AHCJ's social media efforts and edits and manages production of association guides, programs and newsletters.

The Association of Health Care Journalists and six other journalism organizations on Thursday formally protested the Obama administration’s new restrictions on access to the republished Public Use File of the National Practitioner Data Bank.npdb-sebelius-letter-image

In a letter to U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, the groups said that the new restrictions “are ill-advised, unenforceable and probably unconstitutional. Restricting how reporters use public data is an attempt at prior restraint.”

The Health Resources and Services Administration removed the Public Use File of the data bank from its website in September after a complaint from a doctor who complained information on him was used inappropriately. The agency republished the data on Wednesday 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.

An excerpt from the letter:

This puts journalists in an untenable position. How can reporters who use the file prove that their identification of a troubled doctor was independent of the Public Use File? If reporters identify doctors in their stories and also have had access to the file, would HRSA ask to see their notes, talk to their sources, confirm that their facts came from other records and not the data bank?

In addition to AHCJ, the letter is signed by the Investigative Reporters and Editors, the Society of Professional Journalists, the National Association of Science Writers, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the National Freedom of Information Coalition and the National Conference of Editorial Writers.

The editorial writers group has recently joined the coalition of media organizations seeking a return of the Public Use File as it was available before September – without restrictions.

Agency re-posts National Practitioner Data Bank file, but restrictions draw fire

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 AHCJ's social media efforts and edits and manages production of association guides, programs and newsletters.

The U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration today republished the public version of the National Practitioner Data Bank, after intense pressure from journalism groups, researchers and members of Congress.

But the action comes with a major catch: Those who want to access the data will have to agree to certain restrictions that were not in place before.

National Practitioner Data Bank public use file

Nov. 9 statement by HRSA Administrator Mary K. Wakefield, Ph.D., R.N.

Earlier coverage:

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

Nov. 3: Grassley blasts HRSA over data removal after seeing letter exchange with doc

Oct. 7: Grassley criticizes federal agency over removal of doctor discipline data
Grassley’s letter to HRSA Administrator Wakefield (PDF)

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
(PDF)

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)

Earlier version of NPDB public use file posted by Investigative Reporters and Editors, working with AHCJ and the Society of Professional Journalists.

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 posted aggregate information from the data bank in a Public Use File that did not identify individual providers.

HRSA officials removed the public file from the data bank website on Sept. 1 because a spokesman said the agency believed it was used to identify physicians inappropriately. The Association of Health Care Journalists has protested the action, along with 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.

Other groups likewise protested, including Public Citizen, Consumers Union and prominent health researchers. U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley has twice written to federal officials condemning the action.

AHCJ president Charles Ornstein commended the Obama administration for working with reporters on this issue but said he is concerned about the restrictions HRSA is imposing for those seeking access to the data.

“How can the government say data is public but then say it’s only public with strings attached?” Ornstein said. “I am troubled that HRSA is overstepping its legal authority with these new rules and may be imposing unconstitutional prior restraints on reporters.”

To gain access to the Public Use File, reporters must agree to three conditions: they will not use it alone or in combination with other data sets to identify any individuals or entities; they will not repost the raw data; and they will return it to HRSA upon request. Violating the rules could result in having to return the data and being barred from receiving it in the future, HRSA says.

“Having access to information on physician discipline, malpractice payouts and hospital sanctions is important for those who care about patient safety and oversight of physicians across the country,” Ornstein said. “But the restrictions put in place by HRSA are unworkable.”

Ornstein encouraged HRSA to abide by its longstanding practice of refusing to confirm or deny the identity of individual physicians in the Public Use File. In doing so, reporters and their news outlets bear the legal liability for ensuring their information is correct, and newsrooms must ensure they have exercised due diligence in their reporting.

Reporters have used the Public Use File for two primary tasks. The first is for statistical information (the number of doctors in their state with malpractice payouts who have not been disciplined) and that would be allowed under the new rules.

The second is to fill in information about particular physicians whom they have identified through other records and means. That would be barred under the new rules.

“In the past, the Public Use File has been a vital tool for journalists writing about insufficient oversight of physicians in their states,” Ornstein said. “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. I worry such reporting may be chilled by those new rules.”

HRSA removed the public version of the data bank only after the urging of a Kansas neurosurgeon with a long history of malpractice payouts, according to records released Nov. 3 by Grassley. The doctor, Robert Tenny, sent six letters to HRSA before and after The Kansas City Star wrote a story that said he had been sued at least 16 times for malpractice and had paid out roughly $3.7 million since the early 1990s.

An earlier version of the Public Use File, accessed in August before it was removed, is available on IRE’s website. It does not include some updated information that is available in the file that HRSA republished today. At the same time, reporters are not bound by the new restrictions imposed by HRSA.

Update: Comment from Grassley

Sen. Charles Grassley

Sen. Charles Grassley

Grassley released this statement this afternoon:

“HRSA is overreaching and interpreting the law in a way that restricts the use of the information much more than the law specifies. Nowhere in the law does it say a reporter can’t use the data in the public use file to combine that with other sources and potentially identify doctors who have been disciplined in their practice of medicine.This agency needs to remember that half of all health care dollars in the United States comes from taxpayers, so the interpretation of the law ought to be for public benefit. It’s also hard to see how HRSA has the resources to require the return of supposedly misused data or how that would even work. It seems the agency’s time would be better used in making sure the database is up to date and as useful as possible. I continue to expect a briefing from HRSA on this situation, including participation from the person who pulled the public data file after a single physician complained that a reporter identified him through shoe leather reporting, not the public data file. One complaint shouldn’t dictate public access to federally collected data for 300 million people.”

Grassley criticizes federal agency over removal of doctor discipline data

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 AHCJ's social media efforts and edits and manages production of association guides, programs and newsletters.

Grassley’s letter to HRSA Administrator Wakefield

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
(PDF)

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.

U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) sent a letter today to the Health Resources and Services Administration, criticizing its decision to remove a public version of the National Practitioner Data Bank, which has helped reporters and researchers to expose serious gaps in the oversight of physicians.

“Shutting down public access to the data bank undermines the critical mission of identifying inefficiencies within our health care system – particularly at the expense of Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries,” Grassley wrote to HRSA Administrator Mary Wakefield. “More transparency serves the public interest.”

Grassley, ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, continued: “Generally speaking, except in cases of national security, the public’s business ought to be public. Providers receive billions of dollars in state and federal tax dollars to serve Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries. Accountability requires tracking how the money is spent.”

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 posted aggregate information from the data bank in a Public Use File that did not identify individual 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. The Association of Health Care Journalists has protested the action, along with Investigative Reporters and Editors, Society of Professional Journalists, National Association of Science Writers, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and National Freedom of Information Coalition.

Grassley’s letter comes days after the official who created the Public Use File in the mid-1990s and managed it until 2008 said that HRSA was “erroneously interpreting the law” governing the data bank by removing the public version.

In a letter to AHCJ, Robert 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.”

Sen. Charles Grassley

Sen. Charles Grassley

In his letter to Wakefield, Grassley was sharply critical of a threat HRSA made to Kansas City Star Reporter Alan Bavley. After a complaint from a lawyer representing a doctor, HRSA threatened Bavley with civil money penalties if he ran a story based on information from the data bank. HRSA did not pursue the fine, officials later said, because Bavley did not have access to confidential information. But the agency did remove the file from its website.

“It seems disturbing and bizarre that HRSA would attempt to chill a reporter’s First Amendment activity with threats of fines for merely ‘republishing’ public information from one source and connecting it with public information from another. A journalist’s shoe-leather reporting is no justification for such threats or for HRSA to shut down public access to information that Congress intended to be public,” Grassley wrote.

Grassley asked Wakefield a series of questions and asked for responses by Oct. 21.

AHCJ President Charles Ornstein called on the Obama administration once again to restore access to the Public Use File. “Using this file, reporters across the country have prepared stories that have exposed holes in the oversight of doctors – and those stories have led to greater transparency and improved patient protections,” he said. “This information needs to be restored now.”