Secrecy protects doctors with long histories of problems
February 26, 2015 Published in Articles
BY ALAN BAVLEY
The Kansas City Star
Posted on Sat, Dec. 17, 2011 07:07 PM
Buried deep in a federal database is Practitioner No. 222117, perhaps the most frequently disciplined doctor in America.
This doctor has been accused of violating drug laws, prescribing unauthorized medications, providing substandard care and obtaining licenses through fraud.
From 2002 through 2006, 20 states and the District of Columbia revoked or suspended No. 222117’s medical licenses. Two professional societies took away the doctor’s memberships. The Department of Health and Human Services banned the doctor from billing Medicare and Medicaid. And the Drug Enforcement Administration revoked the doctor’s permit to prescribe controlled drugs. For most of these years, the doctor’s home base was Missouri.
But who is this doctor? And is he or she still practicing?
We don’t know. The federal government won’t say. And it won’t even let reporters or anyone else investigate to find out.
The Department of Health and Human Services imposed new rules this fall restricting how researchers and reporters can use anonymous information the government keeps in the database where No. 222117 resides — along with more than 196,000 other doctors with malpractice or discipline issues.
Before anyone can download the data from an HHS website, they now must agree not to combine it with any other information that would let them to zero in on a doctor’s identity.
In the past, journalists who dug into the court files and state disciplinary records of questionable doctors could occasionally identify them in the federal database and uncover additional information unavailable from other sources. Journalists used this information to report on shortcomings in the way doctors were regulated.
The government’s new rules forbid that kind of reporting. The rules were fashioned after a Johnson County neurosurgeon complained to HHS this summer that The Kansas City Star was able to identify him in the database.
Several weeks ago, The Star downloaded the federal database again and sifted through it, looking for doctors with particularly problematic histories. To get the data this time, The Star had to agree to the new terms set by HHS.
That means we can’t check the records of state licensing boards to find out who Practitioner No. 222117 is.
Nor can The Star, or any other newspaper, check court records or use other information to identify:
- A surgeon who lost or settled 247 malpractice cases in California during the 1990s for a total of more than $6 million.
- A doctor who had drug or alcohol problems and has been in and out of trouble since 1991 with hospitals and licensing boards in at least five states.
- A Missouri doctor whose staff privileges were suspended or reduced by hospitals seven times and who voluntarily surrendered hospital privileges on four other occasions.
After protests, national doctor database reopens — with a catch