Tag Archives: public access

Florida hospitals sidestep state constitution, keep records under wraps

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism.

Writing for BrowardBulldog.org, an independent investigative news site serving South Florida, Amber Statler-Matthews reports that hospitals are going to what one man called “extraordinary lengths” to prevent patients from accessing records that, according to the Florida constitution’s “Patient’s Right to Know Act,” should be made available.

Seven years ago, Florida voters overwhelmingly approved a Constitutional amendment that gave patients who had been hospitalized the right to see reports dealing with botched medical procedures and poor care. While the amendment could be used to give patients vital information before a medical mistake is made, its practical and more much publicized purpose was to give aggrieved patients more power in court by opening up malpractice complaints and confidential internal reviews of doctors and hospitals.

In the years since the amendment, the state’s courts have been pressed on both sides, with hospitals dedicating considerable resources to throwing up “roadblocks and legal challenges to block access to patient records,” Statler-Matthews writes. “In response, patients across Florida are using the law to ask judges to pry open reports about medical errors.”

For more on how the battle has evolved and details on how Florida hospitals are circumventing the constitution, see Statler-Matthews’ full piece.

EPA changes would improve public access to data

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism.

A recent OMB Watch story covers the EPA’s latest attempt to leverage the Toxic Substances Control Act to make it easier for the public to access chemical data and harder for manufacturers to hide health and safety related information behind the “trade secrets” label.

Fire and emergency response personnel practice techniques for hazardous materials containment and removal.

Fire and emergency response personnel practice techniques for hazardous materials containment and removal. (CDC photo)

The key is the expansion of the Inventory Update Reporting rule, which requires companies to report toxic substances over a certain weight threshold. According to OMB Watch, the Bush administration bumped this threshold from 10,000 to 25,000 pounds, and decreased reporting frequency from every four years to every five years.

The proposed rule lowers or eliminates thresholds for reporting and increases reporting frequency, moves that should provide the public with more information on more chemicals. The amount of a chemical manufactured at a facility in any given year fluctuates widely. … EPA’s proposed rule would require a manufacturer to submit information on a chemical if the volume exceeds the 25,000-pound threshold for any year since the previous submission. The agency is also proposing to return the reporting frequency to every four years rather than every five. Additionally, EPA is proposing requiring all reporters to submit data on the processing and use of the chemicals. The current program requires such reporting only for chemicals manufactured or imported over 300,000 pounds.

The manufacturers would use EPA-provided software to report their chemical inventory – currently, most manufacturers submit paper reports. The paper reports take years to process and the data-entry process introduces extra error into the system.

Another proposed change would require reporting of a number of valuable pieces of information, such as yearly production volumes, more specific chemical names and numbers to ensure the correct chemical substances are identified, and the approximate number of workers exposed to the chemicals.

Furthermore, manufacturers currently can label just about anything as “confidential business information,” the new rules would place annual limits on the practice and require manufacturers to justify any such designations.

The Society of Environmental Journalists wrote about the issue back in March and included a link to a report [PDF] from the EPA’s Inspector General, as well as other coverage.

Hearing on public access to research will be online

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.

Representatives of a number of medical- and publishing-related organizations will testify today at a hearing on “Public access to federally funded research” before the Information Policy, Census and National Archives Subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

You can catch the webcast of the hearing at 2 p.m. EDT. Update: It appears the hearing is not being webcast.

(Hat tip to the Electronic Frontier Foundation for the webcast link.)

Earlier

Barriers in 5 Midwest states chill public access

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.

A study from the the Citizen Advocacy Center finds that open government laws in Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota have systemic barriers that chill public participation and access to government.

The Center analyzed each state’s Freedom of Information and Open Meetings Acts and found striking similarities between all states, including:

  • Open government laws are sporadically enforced, which means public bodies are more likely to be unresponsive to records requests and employ exemptions to keep meetings closed.
  • No state surveyed has a government office with statutory authority specifically created to oversee and enforce sunshine laws.
  • State employees are not adequately trained to carry out open government policies and may be unintentionally violating the laws.
  • Citizens may be able to attend meetings, but there are very few opportunities to participate.

The Midwest Open Goverment Project is a comprehensive study of the Freedom of Information and Open Meetings Acts in those five states, under the auspices of the Citizen Advocacy Center.

Sunshine Week: Some hospital quality measures online

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.

Felice Freyer, a medical writer at The Providence (R.I.) Journal and a member of AHCJ’s Right to Know Committee, writes in an article for AHCJ that “In recent years, state and federal agencies have begun yanking data out of filing cabinets and opening their folders to the daylight of cyberspace.”

As Freyer points out, “The Internet offers vast new opportunities to answer every patient’s most pressing question: Am I entrusting my health to people who will take good care of me?”

Web sites that offer hospital quality data not only inform consumers, they prod everyone in health care to do a better job. Much more can and should be done to give the public better access to what the regulators know.

Read more of Freyers article.

Additional Sunshine Week coverage: Online health data varies by state

Sunshine Week: Online health data varies by state

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 Sunshine Week 2009 Survey of State Government Information Online found that while more and more government records are being posted online, some of the most important information is being left offline. And in some cases governments are charging taxpayers to access records that they already paid for, such as death certificates.

Sunshine Week

Sunshine Week 2009:
March 15-21

Sunshine Week is a national initiative to open a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information. Participants include print, broadcast and online news media, civic groups, libraries, nonprofits, schools and others interested in the public’s right to know.

Teams of surveyors scanned government Web sites in every U.S. state to look for 20 different kinds of public records.

The survey (PDF) included nursing home inspection reports, hospital inspection reports and death certificates. It found that nursing home inspection reports are available online in 29 states, hospital inspection reports are available online in 17 states and death certificates are available online in five states.

The report says that “Death certificates are apparently a revenue source for many states, as they charge relatives and “legitimately” interested parties for copies of the records, or farm out the work to a third-party service such as VitalChek. Some states provide historical access online to older death certificates, mostly prior to 1960, although there generally is a fee for hard copies.”

Other health-related highlights in the report:

In Oklahoma, hospital inspection reports are said to be “confidential by statute” and would not be disclosed publicly unless there was a case involving a licensing question or revocation/suspension of a license.

Louisiana: “We have a problem with the legality of it,” a Louisiana Department of Transportation official told the survey reporter who called the office after failing to find bridge inspection reports online. Calls to other Louisiana agencies after finding neither hospital or nursing home inspections, nor environmental citations online yielded otherwise unlinked URLs for information.

Maryland: Nursing home information got high marks for facilitating online search and for allowing users to “compare data in a variety of ways.”

Minnesota: The state’s Department of Human Services says it expects corrections orders and licensing sanctions, not currently posted, to be online “in the near future.”

California: Because the state of California is so large, surveyors looked at whether individual departments and agencies posted their audits and personal financial disclosure forms, including audits from the Department of Health Care Services. They found that the data is not clearly linked from the department’s home page, though it is free to view and download. The most recent audit reports online where from 2007.

Department of Health and Human Services

University of Missouri graduate students reviewed the Web site of the Department of Health and Human Services and reported on what documents are available in electronic reading rooms. The students noted that the HHS Web site is difficult to navigate because it is comprised of so many divisions that “vary in content, organization and utility.”

They found multiple problems with many of the HHS administrative manuals and other documents, including documents that were locked because someone else was viewing them and documents that were not clear about when they were created or modified.