Quashing Access to Data, Feds Muddle Commitment to Transparency

Joe Cantlupe, November 17, 2011

When Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius issued a strategic plan for her huge federal agency last year, she cited the need for "transparency," emphasizing that President Obama was committed to "creating an unprecedented level of openness."

Initially, she demonstrated that she meant business—at least outside the walls of HHS. In 2010, Sebelius chastised health insurance industry executives for "jaw-dropping" rate increases, urged them to be more "transparent" in seeking rate hikes and reminded them they had to tell the full story about their profit margins.

Tough talk indeed.

Too bad Sebelius's shop – HHS – hasn't been very transparent when it comes to public access to a database about problem physicians.

HHS turned its back on transparency when one of its agencies, the Health Resources and Services Administration, on Sept. 1 shut down a 25-year-old database containing names of physicians who have been charged by state medical boards for improper actions. The shutdown stems from one doctor's complaint after an unflattering newspaper story.

After a subsequent flurry of counter-complaints, the agency last week reversed itself, opening the database to the public, but with major changes. HRSA imposed so many restrictions on use of the database, that journalist and consumer groups, including those representing patients, say it's virtually useless as a tool to identify bad docs.

"What they did was ill-advised, unenforceable, and probably unconstitutional," Charles Ornstein, president of the Association of Health Care Journalists, tells HealthLeaders Media, echoing a letter AHCA wrote to Sebelius protesting the action.

Physicians' groups themselves have mixed feelings about whether there should be access. While the American Medical Association states it has "long opposed" access to the database, the American Academy of Family Physicians describes itself as ambivalent about it.

Ornstein made clear that it's not only journalists who rely on the database. The information is important for healthcare systems, too, he says.

Joe Cantlupe Joe Cantlupe is a senior editor with HealthLeaders Media Online.Twitter
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