Tag Archives: NPDB

Former Practitioner Data Banks official says HRSA ‘erroneously interpreting the law’

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.

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 *(updated) 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.

* There was a typo in the date in an earlier version of this post.

Earlier coverage

Journalists turn to Sebelius for access to National Practitioner Data Bank file

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.

HHS Sec. Kathleen Sebelius spoke to journalists at Health Journalism 2010 in Chicago.

HHS Sec. Kathleen Sebelius spoke to journalists at Health Journalism 2010 in Chicago.

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.

Letter to Sebelius (PDF)

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

Letter to members of Congress (PDF)

HRSA letter to Bavley (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

Get the NPDB public use file

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

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.