Freedom of the Press? It depends.

Officials within the Obama Administration did something the other day that seemed like a move taken out of Dick Cheney’s playbook: they pulled a public database of physician misconduct and malpractice offline.

The National Practitioner Data Bank is a tool that health journalists have used for years to point out problem physicians, lax oversight, and misconduct that probably would otherwise go unnoticed. The Public Use Data File has been available in some form for years… until this week. It should be stressed that this data bank never publicly identifies physicians, but enterprising reporters can use provided statistical data to help put the pieces together along with other information they may have uncovered.

This data bank is a tool that helps the media investigate problem physicians, and make sure the public is informed of misconduct, errors, sanctions, or other information that could impact their future health, or even their life.

Here’s what the Health Resources and Services Administration, the agency that runs the data bank, says on their website:

The Public Use Data File is not available at this time because the Division of Practitioner Data Banks is reviewing its procedures for disclosing information in a form that does not permit the identification of any particular health care entity, physician, other health care practitioner, or patient. The Public Use Data File may be available after a thorough analysis of the data fields to ensure the protection of confidential information is completed. The data in the Public Use Data File will also be examined in conjunction with other publicly available data sets to reduce disclosure risks. DPDB will continue to provide data to researchers upon request. At this time, a researcher must provide a proposal (including table shells) for their need of data. DPDB will review the request and approve or deny the request for data.

So every time a journalist wishes to access this public information, they have to ask – via a formal proposal – and include a blank shell so the department gets to fill in the worksheet. And if HRSA doesn’t like the request, well, too bad for the reporter. The Association of Health Care Journalists, the Society of Professional Journalists, Investigative Reporters and Editors and several media entities have filed strong protests with HRSA on the removal of the database. (full disclosure, I am a member of AHCJ).

This all started because a reporter from the Kansas City Star was trying to do his job. He was working on a story about a doctor with a history of malpractice suits that had never been disciplined by the state medical board. The HRSA Administrator actually threatened sanctions if the reporter had the audacity to publish the article.

Thankfully, the newspaper ignored the threat and the story appeared on Sept. 4. A complaint from the doctor’s lawyer to HRSA prompted the removal of the entire database.

Reporters have an obligation to inform the public. A free press is what keeps those in power accountable to the citizens. Has anyone at HRSA read the Constitution lately? The key passage is called the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press….”

In 1966, Lyndon Johnson signed the original Freedom of Information Act, saying “a democracy works best when the people have all the information that the security of the Nation permits.” The law grants any person — individual or corporation – presumptive access to existing unpublished agency records on any topic, with nine categories of exception, primarily relating to national security.

Why make such a big deal about this?

If I was going to have neurosurgery I sure as hell would want to know if the doctor had been sued for malpractice, or been sanctioned — and if so, for what. Hey, that’s my life on the operating table. Heck, if I’m going for routine blood work I want to know the lab doesn’t have a track record of mixing up results and that the facility is up to standards. I want the entire truth about a health professional, hospital, lab, or any other person or place that is caring for me, not some sanitized version that glosses over potentially deadly mistakes.

Although reporters have used the data bank for years, HRSA claims that it suddenly realized that physicians are too easily identified, so it pulled the research tool offline to address those concerns. Maybe, just maybe, in six months or more, they will consider reposting it.

In the interim the IRE downloaded the data posted it elsewhere. It’s accurate through August 2011. The public has a right to know about doctors that may pose harm. It seems like HRSA is more interested in cozying up to doctors and the medical societies than acting like the public agency they are supposed to be.

Here’s the bottom line: People get hurt, maimed, and die when the truth about high-risk physicians is withheld. The job of a journalist is to inform the public. Not sometimes. Always. Whether or not the government or others like what they report.

HRSA needs to put that database back online. Now.