The program has been important for hospitals seeking information on doctors, especially in states where there has been inadequate public access to medical disciplinary actions, says Ornstein. "It is extremely helpful to hospitals checking out physicians and those who may be moving from one state to another," he adds.
Specifically, the issue hinges on the public use file from the National Practitioner Data Bank website, which has been consistently referred to by researchers and consumer groups to calculate trends in disciplinary actions by state medical boards. Beyond that, it has generated some provocative stories in the press nationwide about wrongdoing among doctors across the country.
The database doesn't identify doctors by name, but it gives insight into trends reflecting how state medical boards are disciplining doctors, as well as vital data about hospital sanctions and medical malpractice payouts.
The brouhaha began after a Kansas City Starreporter, culling the data bank and state court records, wrote a story about a local physician. The physician complained, and got quick action: HRSA promptly removed the public use file from its website on Sept. 1. Not only that, the agency wrote a letter warning the reporter he could be liable for $11,000 or more in civil fines for violating a confidentiality provision of the federal law.
The physician, Robert Tenny, had written six letters to HRSA before and after the Kansas City Star published the story that said he had been sued at least 16 times for malpractice and had paid out roughly $3.7 million since the early 1990s, according to the Association of Health Care Journalists.
After editorials were written objecting to the HHS database shutdown, Sen. Charles E. Grassley, (R-IA), ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, criticized HRSA for "disturbing and bizarre" actions, saying the public use file had been important to weed out "bad acting healthcare practioners."
Last week, HRSA relented somewhat, reopening a public portion of the database, but imposed other restrictions. These changes make it onerous to use, says Erika Smith, chief investigator for the Senate Judiciary Committee.