The government agency that removed from public view a national database that chronicles physicians' malpractice fines and sanctions declined to provide a time frame for restoring public access to the database.
HRSA: Doc database removal a 'temporary action'
The U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration's National Practitioner Data Bank didn't list physicians' names, but agency officials removed the database's Public Use File in response to concern that reporters and other members of the public could use other data sources in combination with their information to confirm the identity of doctors.
In letters to three journalism groups that protested the database's removal (PDF), HRSA Administrator Mary Wakefield called the removal a "temporary action" and said the agency is committed to transparency and to making the file available publicly online again "as quickly as possible." No deadline was provided, however.
"HRSA is currently reconfiguring the PUF in a form that does not permit the identification of any particular healthcare entity, physician, other healthcare practitioner or patient," Wakefield said. The file's purpose is to provide data for statistical analysis, she stated.
Meanwhile, the journalism group Investigative Reporters & Editors has posted the removed file on its site.
"This database has allowed reporters to uncover flaws that have toughened legislation, and without a doubt, saved the lives of patients across the country," IRE board President Manny Garcia stated in a news release.
HRSA's actions come after Kansas City (Mo.) Star health reporter Alan Bavley was working on a story that would identify a doctor using the confidential data listed by HRSA. The public database then came down on Sept. 1, after Bavley received a letter from the agency threatening a civil fine of up to $11,000 if he identified a physician using the databank. The Association of Health Care Journalists stated in a news release that the threat came despite years of other reporters doing the same thing.
"HRSA has overreacted to a complaint from one doctor's lawyer," Charles Ornstein, president of the association, said via e-mail. "We encourage the agency to reconsider and hope members of Congress will help achieve that, as well. Further delays are unacceptable, as is releasing less information."
The file contains sanctions filed by medical societies, state medical boards, hospitals and the Drug Enforcement Administration.
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