On Friday, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) -- along with academic researchers, consumer groups and journalism organizations -- sent a letter to HHS' Health Resources and Services Administration criticizing the Obama administration for removing certain information from a database that tracked physician malpractice and disciplinary cases, the New York Times' "Prescriptions" reports (Wilson, "Prescriptions," New York Times, 10/7).
The database -- called the National Practitioner Data Bank -- was established by HRSA in 1986 to share information about questionable physician practices.
The electronic database was required by law to be confidential and accessible only to certain health care providers and entities. However, the database included a section that was stripped of personal identifiers and accessible to the public, researchers and the media.
Martin Kramer, a spokesperson for HHS, said a Kansas City Star reporter was able to combine data from the "public use file" with other material to write a story about malpractice allegations against a Kansas neurosurgeon.
HHS then blocked access to the public section in response to a complaint by the neurosurgeon (iHealthBeat, 9/16). Federal officials also started reviewing strategies to better protect physicians' identities ("Prescriptions," New York Times, 10/7).
In the letter, Grassley wrote that the Kansas City Star reporter's actions are "no justification for such threats or for HRSA to shut down public access to information that Congress intended to be public" (Robeznieks, Modern Healthcare, 10/9).
He wrote, "Shutting down public access to the data bank undermines the critical mission of identifying inefficiencies within our health care system" (Chacko, "FedLine," Federal Times, 10/7).
Grassley also asked HRSA to furnish:
- All records related to breaches of the database's confidentiality over the last two years;
- Information on which HRSA officials decided to removed the information in question;
- Data on how the agency plans to better protect physicians' identities; and
- A timeline for when the database will be available again with complete information.
Grassley called for HRSA to provide the requested information by Oct. 21. He also asked the agency to provide an "in-depth briefing" on the issue (Modern Healthcare, 10/9).
Obama Administration Response
Kramer said HRSA has received Grassley's letter but has no further comment on the issue ("Prescriptions," New York Times, 10/7).
HRSA officials have argued that the information in the physician database never was meant to be public and that the public use file is only for general statistical analysis (Modern Healthcare, 10/9). Officials also have said they plan to restore access to the public use file as soon as possible ("FedLine," Federal Times, 10/7).
A Providence Journal editorial argues that HRSA has "yanked the public use file from its website" despite "its obvious value to patients." The editorial adds that "linking names with data in the public use file has helped [reporters] establish trails of malpractice claims and, in some cases, states' failures to take action."
According to the editorial, "For an administration that promised greater transparency, suspension of the database is a dismaying step backward." It continues that shutting down the public use file "could make the database all but useless to the public, and pointless to maintain" (Providence Journal, 10/8).