By Alina Selyukh
(Reuters) - Consumer advocates and journalism groups are fighting a U.S. government move to cut public access to a database of malpractice claims and damages paid by doctors around the nation.
The Association of Health Care Journalists (AHCJ) and Consumers Union on Thursday joined several groups in criticizing curbs by a U.S. health agency earlier this month on public access to a database of malpractice settlements over concerns of a breach of one doctor's confidentiality.
Since 1986, the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) has tracked troubled doctors' records in the National Practitioners Data Bank, an electronic database that, by law, is confidential and open only to hospitals, state licensing boards and other eligible healthcare entities.
However, the HRSA has also been stripping the database of any identifiable elements and making it available online to researchers, patients and the media through a so-called Public Use File.
That file has been down after a Kansas City Star reporter combined the data from it with his research of court records to identify details about a local neurosurgeon and later run a story exposing the doctor's history of being sued for alleged malpractice.
"As soon as HRSA became aware that in this case, a reporter was able to use the data in the (Public Use File) to obtain information about a specific physician we had no choice but to follow the law and remove the (Public Use File) from the website until we can find a way to make as much information as is it legal to disclose available as quickly as possible," said the agency's spokesman Martin Kramer in an email.
"The law is clear; information about individual practitioners in the NPDB is to be confidential."
The reaction from the Obama administration, which has pledged greater transparency, has puzzled journalists who for years have used the publicly available anonymous data to expose medical malpractice.
"Nothing else has changed; just their interpretation (of the law) seems to have changed," said Charles Ornstein, president of the AHCJ whose letter was also signed by the presidents of the Investigative Reporters and Editors group and the Society of Professional Journalists.
"If anything, the agency erred on the side of physician privacy," the letter said.
Journalists also criticized HRSA's warning letter to the reporter, Alan Bavley, before his story ran, telling him he could be hit with a civil monetary penalty for naming the physician based on confidential data from the file.
(To read the HRSA letter, see http://r.reuters.com/rys73s ; to read AHCJ's letter, see http://r.reuters.com/sys73s)
"The responsibility of the agency (HRSA) is to ensure that they do not provide any identifiable information in the data base, and that responsibility has been met for 15 years," said Lisa McGiffert, director of the Consumers Union Safe Patient Project, a consumer advocate that also sent a letter to HRSA.
HRSA's Kramer said he could not speak to what has happened in the past.
It remains unclear when and in what format the public version of the data bank may return online. For now, researchers can contact staffers at the data bank with specific research questions, Kramer said.
Other consumer groups including Public Citizen have sent letters to the HRSA, to which the health agency will respond "in a timely fashion," the spokesman said.
(Reporting by Alina Selyukh; Editing by Richard Chang)