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Academic community joins call to restore National Practitioner Data Bank file

Twenty-three academics and researchers have added their voice to the growing condemnation of the Obama administration’s decision to remove the Public Use File of the National Practitioner Data Bank.

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

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)

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.

In a Sept. 22 letter (PDF) to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Health Resources and Services Administration Administrator Mary Wakefield, the academics wrote that they “condemn, in the strongest possible terms, HRSA’s recent decision to make the Public Use File (PUF) of the National Practitioner Data Bank (NPDB) unavailable.”

The researchers joined media organizations in protesting the administration’s decision. The Association of Health Care Journalists and five other journalism groups have been encouraging the administration and Congress to restore the Public Use File online immediately.

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.

Reporters have used the Public Use File to expose serious lapses in oversight of doctors by state medical boards. The researchers likewise called the Public Use File “an indispensable resource.”

The researchers defended Kansas City Star reporter Alan Bavley, who used the data bank in his research on a local neurosurgeon, Dr. Robert Tenny, who had a long record of malpractice allegations against him.

“That the journalist expended the additional energy needed to identify Dr. Tenny is a good thing,” the researchers’ letter said. “The healthcare system is notoriously opaque.  …By identifying the worst offenders in the physician population and prodding public officials to disclose more information, journalists provide an important stimulus.”

The letter continued, “By pulling down the PUF at the request of a single physician with 16 prior malpractice claims, the HRSA took a large step in the direction of the ‘bad old days’ when secrecy prevailed and providers’ interests took precedence over patients’ safety and well-being.”

Last week, Sen. Charles Grassley wrote to HRSA criticizing the agency’s decision. “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 Wakefield. “More transparency serves the public interest.”

And a former top official at HRSA, who was in charge of the Public Use File, has also weighed in, saying the agency’s decision doesn’t have a basis in law.

Finally, John Ensslin, president of the Society of Professional Journalists, has written a blog post about the importance of this fight.

A conference call with officials from the Health Resources and Services Administration to discuss the future of the Public Use File has been scheduled for Thursday and journalists are invited to participate ­- register in advance at http://t.co/lwnzG9Mi.