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Federal court refuses to block release of malpractice information

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    News Media Update         NEW JERSEY         Freedom of Information    

Federal court refuses to block release of malpractice information

  • A U.S. District Court judge in New Jersey ruled that a federal law does not block the release of medical malpractice information that must be made public under state law.

June 17, 2004 — Confidentiality provisions that prevent disclosure of medical malpractice information collected under the federal Health Care Quality Improvement Act do not prevent the disclosure of the same information when collected under a separate New Jersey law, a federal court judge in New Jersey ruled last week.

The federal act requires doctors, hospitals and insurance companies to report information to the federal government regarding payments made to settle or satisfy judgments in medical malpractice lawsuits. The required information includes the doctor or other health professional’s name, any affiliated hospital, the details of the malpractice claim and the amount of payment.

The act requires the reported information to remain confidential, but specifically provides, “Nothing in this subsection shall prevent the disclosure of such information by a party which is otherwise authorized, under applicable state law, to make such disclosure.”

A New Jersey law pre-dating the federal act requires the same information to be reported to the state, and also includes confidentiality provisions. In practice, insurance companies send the same report to both the state and federal governments.

On June 23, 2003, the New Jersey legislature enacted the New Jersey Health Care Consumer Information Act, scheduled to go into effect June 23, 2004. The act requires the state Division of Consumer Affairs to compile publicly available profiles on all licenced doctors, including information on medical malpractice judgments and settlements. The profiles note when judgments are under appeal, do not include pending claims, and include a statement that settlements do not imply guilt of malpractice.

In August 2003, The (Hackensack) Record sued the Division of Consumer Affairs in Superior Court in Hackensack after being denied access to malpractice records dating back to 1999. Judge Sybil R. Moses ruled for the newspaper earlier this year, holding that the public interest in disclosure outweighed the interest in confidentiality. She ordered the records released by June 10, giving the division time to remove any exempt material.

On May 6, the Medical Society of New Jersey, a state physicians association, filed suit in federal court against the consumer affairs division seeking an injunction against the release of the records. The society argued that the federal act trumped the state law disclosure requirements, that the physicians had an expectation of privacy in the malpractice records dating before the enactment of the state act, and that the state act unconstitutionally interfered with the physicians’ settlement contracts.

The Record was permitted to intervene in the case.

U.S. District Court Judge William G. Bassler dismissed the society’s claims from the bench on June 7 and issued a written opinion the following day.

On the issue of whether the federal act supercedes the New Jersey law, Bassler held, “upon a clear reading of the HCQIA, there is simply no provision in the federal law deeming information that is independently collected by a state agency confidential.”

Bassler also ruled that there was no federal right of privacy violated by the disclosure, and that the issue of a state right of privacy was a matter only the state court could decide. He ruled that doctors’ contract rights were not impermissibly interfered with because confidentiality is not the primary purpose of the settlements. Disclosure does not cause a “substantial impairment” to the settlement contracts, while the state has a “significant and legitimate public purpose” in requiring disclosure.

(Medical Society of New Jersey v. Mottla; Media Counsel: Dina L. Sforza, Hackensack) GP

© 2004 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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