Sept. 20, 2000 (Washington, D.C.) -- A powerful congressional committee focused Wednesday on legislation that would give the public access to a now-restricted national data bank on doctor malpractice settlements and disciplinary actions.
Three outraged citizens led off the House Commerce Committee's hearing, advocating that the public should have access to the data bank and testifying that doctor malpractice had tragically affected them or their families.
But worried doctors can likely breath a sigh of relief. The overwhelming majority of Republicans and Democrats at the hearing expressed serious reservations about the proposal from Rep. Thomas Bliley (R-Va.). Bliley, who chairs the committee, introduced the bill on Sept. 7, but as yet has no co-sponsors.
Under current law, doctors must report malpractice settlements and judgments, along with professional disciplinary actions against them, to the National Practitioner Data Bank. The data bank is open only to hospitals, insurers, and government agencies, which pay a fee to access the information.
Bliley's bill would allow the public free access to the data bank via the Internet and would expand the information available to include felony and some misdemeanor convictions against physicians.
"Doctors routinely require consumers to give patient histories before treatment," Bliley said. "I think that patients should have the right to obtain physician histories before placing their very lives in the hands of a doctor." He claims that his measure would protect patients.
Bliley, who is retiring from Congress this year after 20 years, presided over the hearing underneath a large framed oil painting of himself in his trademark bow tie.
But Democrats on the committee pointed out that Congress is supposed to adjourn by Oct. 6 and has little time to start considering new bills. They suggested that Bliley was punishing doctors for their support of separate patient protection measures opposed by Republican leaders. Against the GOP's wishes but with the support of the American Medical Association (AMA), strong legislation passed the House last year to control HMO practices and allow patients the right to sue health plans.
After Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) suggested that the hearing was retaliation against the AMA, Bliley interrupted, "I have never had my motives questioned." He recalled that he had subpoenaed tobacco executives to testify before Congress -- even though his congressional district is in Richmond, a huge cigarette-manufacturing base for Philip Morris.
Other lawmakers said that opening the data bank would only give the public "raw data" rather than useful information in making an informed decision about a doctor. According to Rep. Barbara Cubin (R-Wyo.), "[The information] would be very easy for the general public to misinterpret."
Rep. Greg Ganske, MD, (R-Iowa) noted that some doctors in specialties such as plastic surgery are sued more frequently than other doctors, and those physicians who see high-risk patients or perform innovative procedures face more malpractice suits regardless of their competence.
And Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) said that opening the data bank would discourage doctors from greater openness about mistakes in the medical system, keeping the nation's medical error death toll unacceptably high.
According to Tom Coburn, MD, (R-Okla.), "This is a state issue. It has no business in Washington." Indeed, led by Massachusetts' medical licensing board, numerous state boards have put out "physician profile" information for the public.
While lawmakers were almost unanimously unenthusiastic about Bliley's bill, Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) was a lonely supporter, saying the legislation should be strengthened to include a toll-free telephone option for consumers to access the doctor information.
Several citizen groups also testified in favor of the bill today, including the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, Consumers Union, and the Consumer Federation of America.
The AMA, the American Osteopathic Association, and the American Hospital Association officially oppose the legislation.