HHS Reopens Medical Malpractice Database, but with Restrictions

On behalf of Brown & Crouppen, P.C. posted in Medical Malpractice on Thursday, November 10, 2011

Two months after it shut off the publicly accessible portion of its database containing cases where physicians paid out damages to victims of medical malpractice, the federal Department of Health and Human Services has restored the data for public use. However, it has included sharp restrictions on its use by journalists. Public health advocates and journalist groups are calling the new restrictions “unacceptable” and are calling for HHS to allow journalists full use of the database as it had for years.

We have discussed the National Practitioner Data Bank and the decision to take its public use component offline in previous blog posts, most recently on Oct. 17. The Health Resources and Services Administration, the division of HHS that administers the Data Bank, closed off public access on Sept. 1, after a physician complained. The physician was investigated by a Kansas City Star reporter as part of an article about doctors who paid settlements or were found liable in medical malpractice suits in Missouri or Kansas but had never been disciplined by state licensing boards.

Prior to that article, journalists across the country, including ones for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, used the Data Bank to confirm information about medical malpractice cases they had gathered from other sources. The cases in the Data Bank remove the physicians’ names, but journalists are able to confirm the cases using other relevant details. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, a critic of the database shutdown, said that this practice is allowed under the law that created the Data Bank.

HRSA officials announced that it was restoring public access on Nov. 9. However, the agency now requires anyone who wants to download data first must promise not to use as part of an effort to identify doctors. Groups such as ProPublica, a journalist organization, and Public Citizen criticized the new restriction. They said it will make reporting on medical malpractice much more difficult.

Sen. Grassley said HRSA is “overreaching” past what the law allows in their effort to control information. He wants a briefing with agency officials for them to explain their reasoning.

Source: Kansas City Star, “After protests, national doctor database reopens – with a catch,” Alan Bavley, Nov. 10, 2011

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