Friday, October 28, 2011

Animal-care panel cancels after Humane Society asserts violation of open-meetings law

A new panel given the task of drafting standards for care of farm animals canceled its scheduled meeting yesterday, apparently because the Humane Society of the United States alleged Wednesday that the Kentucky Livestock Care Standards Commission was violating the Kentucky Open Meetings Act.

The cancellation was announced by the state Department of Agriculture, which later "said the meeting was canceled at the request of Agriculture Commissioner Richie Farmer," Janet Patton reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader. The statement said, "Although he believes that the commission has followed the Open Meetings Act, he wants to make certain that everyone concerned with the issues the commission is working on has ample opportunity to make their opinions heard. Therefore, he believes that the public interest is best served by postponing today's meeting for several days to give all parties concerned enough time to plan for the session."

"The Humane Society alleged that the board has been acting in secret to prevent public involvement and "asked that the commission take no further action on recommendations made by species-specific groups or other advisory panels until the panels hold open meetings to consider all matters previously discussed in private, Patton writes. "Agriculture Department spokesman Bill Clary said Wednesday that the commission thinks it has complied with the state's Open Meetings Act." (Read more)

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Parks board defends meeting behind closed doors

The Winchester Sun has asked Attorney General Jack Conway to review an executive session the Winchester-Clark County Parks and Recreation Board held before deciding to allow alcohol sales in Lykins Park for a concert.

In a letter responding to the Sun's challenge, the parks board said it had received several specific legal threats about allowing alcohol sales in Lykins Park. Under the Kentucky Open Meetings Act, public bodies, including the parks board, are required to conduct all of their business in an open session except when certain issues arise. Threatened or pending litigation is one of those exceptions in the law, and that justified a closed discussion of the matter during a meeting, according to a letter sent to the Kentucky Attorney General’s office by Clark County Attorney Brian Thomas.

The parks board voted 4-2 to allow the Winchester Fraternal Order of Police to sell beer during the John Michael Montgomery Country-Fest, despite an existing policy that prohibits alcohol in public parks in Clark County. The vote in public session on Sept. 12 followed the discussion in executive session.

In its Sept. 21 appeal to the attorney general, The Sun argued that the possibility of litigation was “remote” and therefore the exemption did not apply. Thomas responded for the park board that several people had threatened to sue the board if the waiver were granted.

The attorney general's office has not issued its opinion in the matter. That opinion has the force of law unless it is appealed to circuit court.

Read the Sun's story here.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Agency is pressured to re-post database of doctors' malpractice and disciplinary cases

U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley has joined journalists, academic researchers and consumer groups in calling on the Health Resources and Services Administration to put back online the National Practitioner Data Bank, a database of malpractice and disciplinary cases against doctors.

"In a strongly worded letter, the Iowa Republican, who has led investigations of fraud and waste in government health programs, said the now-removed file 'serves as the backbone in providing transparency for bad-acting health care professionals'," Duff Wilson of The New York Times reports. Grassley gave HRSA, part of the the Department of Health and Human Services, until Oct. 21 to hand over documents and answer a series of questions, ending with "What is your timeline for getting the database up and running again?"

For a PDF of Grassley's letter, click here. Under pressure, the agency has scheduled a conference call on the issue for Thursday, Oct. 13, from 1 to 2 p.m. Eastern Time.

The database "was created in 1986 for hospitals, medical boards, insurers and others to share information so that bad doctors do not slip through cracks in reporting," Wilson writes. The law makes doctors' names confidential, but the database has a Public Use File for researchers and journalists, in which doctors are identified only by numbers.

Some journalists have been able to identify doctors using information from other sources, such as lawsuits. "After a complaint by one doctor identified by The Kansas City Star, the agency threatened the newspaper reporter with a fine, pulled the doctor’s file from its Web site on Sept. 1 and began a review of how to hide the identities better," Wilson reports. "Its actions provoked protests" from the Association of Health Care Journalists, the Society of Professional Journalists, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and other groups. In a letter, they told HRSA, "Nothing in the Public Use File can be used to identify individuals if reporters or researchers don’t already know for whom they are searching."

Grassley wrote, "It seems disturbing and bizarre that HRSA would attempt to chill a reporter’s First Amendment activity with threats of fines for merely 'republishing' public information from one source and connecting it with public information from another. A journalist’s shoe-leather reporting is no justification for such threats or for HRSA to shut down public access to information that Congress intended to be public."

The Public Use File can be downloaded from the website of Investigative Reporters and Editors, one of the groups, protesting its removal from the HRSA site, but "that file will be more and more out-of-date as the dispute goes on," Wilson notes. She also reports that Robert E. Oshel, associate director for research and disputes in the Division of Practitioner Data Banks, says the agency is misinterpreting the law. (Read more)

Friday, October 7, 2011

Attorney general rules Louisville's University Hospital is a public institution

Louisville's University Hospital is a public institution, not a private one, which means the state gets a say about the proposed merger between the hospital, Jewish Hospital & St. Mary's HealthCare and Lexington-based St. Joseph Health System, Attorney General Jack Conway said in an open-records decision Wednesday.

Conway said University Medical Center Inc., which runs the hospital, "was established and created and is controlled by the University of Louisville." U of L has long claimed University Hospital is private and refused to hand over records requested by the ACLU of Kentucky and The Courier-Journal. The ruling means the documents pertaining to the merger itself would have to be made public. Because it deals with an open-government issue, that part of Conway's opinion has the force of law unless overturned in court.

"The finding reinforces the earlier positions by Conway and Gov. Steve Beshear that the deal cannot take place without the approval of state government, which owns the hospital property and granted the contract for University Medical Center to operate it," The C-J's Patrick Howington reports. U of L had said the hospital is private because it is run by a corporation. (Read more)

The ruling could affect the merger because of the religious implications. Saint Joseph is owned by Catholic Health Initiatives, which follows Catholic directives that prohibit abortion, sterilization and euthanasia. For more on the merger, click here.