Quashing Access to Data, Feds Muddle Commitment to Transparency

Joe Cantlupe, for HealthLeaders Media , November 17, 2011

Among the restrictions is a provision that bars users from matching data in the public use file with other data sources to identify physicians. If journalists and others are found to have violated the provision, they could be required to return the data and be barred from receiving it in the future.

"(HRSA) restored the website, and there is access to the database, but it is not useful in the broad sense of the law," Smith tells HealthLeaders Media. "We're displeased and the consumer groups are as displeased as we are. The database does nothing to help rein in physicians who are bad actors."

Essentially, the restrictions make the public use file unworkable, Ornstein says.

"We are particularly concerned (with) the prohibition of using the file in conjunction with other data that identifies an individual or facility. "If reporters identify doctors in their stories and also have had access to the file, would HRSA ask to see their notes, talk to their sources, confirm their facts came from other records and not the data bank?" Ornstein asked in a letter to HHS.

Those who "do not comply with the new restrictions can be asked to return the data and be barred from future access to the public use file," Ornstein says. Requiring that users return the data "is like trying to unspill milk."

One of the big mysteries in all this is how a lone Kansas City physician managed to convince someone within HHS to shut down the entire database, according to Sen. Grassley's chief investigator.

Grassley told HHS he wants a briefing on the matter, including participation "from the person who pulled the public data file after that one single physician complained. Grassley points out that the reporter identified this physician "through shoe leather reporting, not the public data file."

 "One complaint shouldn't dictate public access to federal collected data for 300 million people," Grassley wrote.

After all, isn't that what "transparency" is all about?

Joe Cantlupe is a senior editor with HealthLeaders Media Online.
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