Bowing to widespread complaints, the federal government has restored a website providing records of malpractice payments and disciplinary action against doctors. But journalists and patient advocates protest that authorities are continuing to restrict information to which the public is entitled.

As The Kansas City Star reports, the federal Health Resources and Services Administration, or HRSA, cut off public access to the National Practitioner Data Bank in September. It acted after a Johnson County, Kan., neurosurgeon, Dr. Robert Tenny, complained that reporting by the Star violated his confidentiality.

This week HRSA reopened the website, but with strings attached. One of the key conditions: Anyone downloading its public files will have to agree not to share the data with others or to use the information to zero in on individual doctors, whose identities are masked in the data bank.

However, matching information from the data bank with other public documents, such as court filings, is what reporters long have done to find out if, for instance, disciplinary action has been taken against doctors who repeatedly have been sued for malpractice.

The Star reported that Tenny was among 21 doctors who had spotless Kansas and Missouri medical licenses despite numerous malpractice payouts. The article went on to say that Tenny was sued by patients or their families at least 17 times since 1983. Though Tenny denied the allegations, the Star reported that court records showed that he settled at least seven of those lawsuits.

Charles Ornstein, a reporter with the nonprofit investigative news organization ProPublica and president of the Association of Health Care Journalists, said the new restrictions placed on data bank material will prevent reporters from writing such investigative stories. He said HRSA  overstepped its authority.

“The last time I checked, the federal government doesn’t have the authority to check on the reporting methods of reporters,” he said.

Mary K. Wakefield, HRSA administrator, said in a statement that the agency had imposed “appropriate protections so that critically important research can continue” without violating legal requirements on confidentiality.

The data, Wakefield said, can be used for statistical analysis or reporting on unidentified doctors. “We have taken steps to improve patient safety by making more information available to hospitals, health care entities, and state licensing boards than at any other time in the history of the data bank,” she added.

The data bank was created in 1986 to help hospitals, insurers and medical boards keep track of malpractice payments and disciplinary actions across state lines. Its public file has used identification numbers instead of doctors’ names, partly in response to objections by the American Medical Association, according to The New York Times.

U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, is among the critics of HRSA’s latest restrictions. “This agency needs to remember that half of all health care dollars in the United States  comes from taxpayers, so the interpretation of the law ought to be for public  benefit,” he said.

ROBERT T. NELSON

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