HHS rules, secrecy protect doctors with long histories of problems

The Kansas City StarDecember 20, 2011 

Buried deep in a federal database is Practitioner No. 222117, perhaps the most frequently disciplined doctor in America.

This doctor has been accused of violating drug laws, prescribing unauthorized medications, providing substandard care and obtaining licenses through fraud.

From 2002 through 2006, 20 states and the District of Columbia revoked or suspended No. 222117’s medical licenses. Two professional societies took away the doctor’s memberships. The Department of Health and Human Services banned the doctor from billing Medicare and Medicaid. And the Drug Enforcement Administration revoked the doctor’s permit to prescribe controlled drugs. For most of these years, the doctor’s home base was Missouri.

But who is this doctor? And is he or she still practicing?

We don’t know. The federal government won’t say. And it won’t even let reporters or anyone else investigate to find out.

The Department of Health and Human Services imposed new rules this fall restricting how researchers and reporters can use anonymous information the government keeps in the database where No. 222117 resides — along with more than 196,000 other doctors with malpractice or discipline issues.

Before anyone can download the data from an HHS website, they now must agree not to combine it with any other information that would let them to zero in on a doctor’s identity.

In the past, journalists who dug into the court files and state disciplinary records of questionable doctors could occasionally identify them in the federal database and uncover additional information unavailable from other sources. Journalists used this information to report on shortcomings in the way doctors were regulated.

The government’s new rules forbid that kind of reporting. The rules were fashioned after a Johnson County neurosurgeon complained to HHS this summer that The Kansas City Star was able to identify him in the database.

Several weeks ago, The Star downloaded the federal database again and sifted through it, looking for doctors with particularly problematic histories. To get the data this time, The Star had to agree to the new terms set by HHS.

That means we can’t check the records of state licensing boards to find out who Practitioner No. 222117 is.

To read the complete article, visit www.kansascity.com.

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