A U.S. senator is demanding that the Department of Health and Human Services explain why it shut down public access to a federal database that contains information on the malpractice and disciplinary histories of thousands of doctors nationwide.
The National Practitioner Data Bank took its public use file off its website Sept. 1 after it learned that The Kansas City Star was able to glean information about a Johnson County neurosurgeon from anonymous data in the files. For many years, other newspapers had similarly identified doctors from the public use file without repercussions.
“Shutting down public access to the data bank undermines the critical mission of identifying inefficiencies within our health care system,” Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa said in a letter to Mary Wakefield, administrator of the HHS agency that oversees the data bank.
“More transparency serves the public interest,” wrote Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
An HHS spokesman had no comment on Grassley’s letter. However, a Judiciary Committee staff member confirmed the agency met an Oct. 11 deadline that Grassley set for contacting the committee to arrange a briefing on the database shutdown.
Grassley also gave the agency until Oct. 21 to answer several specific questions about its action.
The data bank’s action has created a storm of protest by journalists, academic researchers and patient safety advocates who consider the public file valuable for uncovering deficiencies in the way doctors are regulated.
Six journalism organizations and 23 faculty members from universities nationwide have called on Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to restore full public access to the database.
Recently, the data bank said that researchers could request specific public data but that the agency retained the option to deny it. Previously, the full public use file could be downloaded directly from the data bank’s website.
The data bank compiles information about malpractice payouts, hospital discipline and regulatory sanctions against doctors and other health professionals. State medical boards, hospitals and insurance plans use this information when assessing applications for licenses or staff privileges.
Only the data bank’s public use file, which removes names and other identifying information, had been available to the public.
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