Lawmaker questions doctor databank withdrawal

Sen. Grassley criticizes HRSA for blocking access to database

Topics: Medicare, Reimbursement, Finance, Payer and Regulatory Policy, Market Trends, Strategy

October 12, 2011

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and other consumer advocates are criticizing the Obama administration for removing certain information from a database tracking physician malpractice and disciplinary cases, the New York Times' "Prescriptions" reports.

The database—called the National Practitioner Data Bank—was established by HHS' Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) in 1986 to share information about questionable physician practices. The electronic database was required by law to be confidential and available only to certain health care providers and entities. However, the database included a section that was stripped of personal identifiers and was accessible by the public, researchers, and the media.

HHS blocked access to the "public use file" after a Kansas neurosurgeon complained about a Kansas City Star story about allegations of malpractice made against him that combined data from database's public section with other material.

Grassley criticizes HRSA decision to pull database

In a letter to the agency, 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." He added, "Shutting down public access to the data bank undermines the critical mission of identifying inefficiencies within our health care system."

In addition, Grassley 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 remove 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.

HRSA defends decision

HHS spokesperson Martin Kramer said HRSA has received Grassley's letter but has no further comment on the issue. 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. Officials also have said they plan to restore access to the public use file as soon as possible (Wilson, "Prescriptions," Times, 10/7; Robeznieks, Modern Healthcare, 10/9 [subscription required]; Chacko, "FedLine," Federal Times, 10/7).