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Syracuse Post-Standard: Cuomo wants to pull plug on free website that reveals malpractice info about docs

Syracuse, N.Y. — Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants to pull the plug on a free state website that provides details about New York doctors’ medical malpractice records, hospital affiliations and other background information.

A two-sentence item buried in Cuomo’s proposed budget says the New York State Physician Profile website should be eliminated because much of the information is available elsewhere on the web. Scuttling the website would save the state $1.2 million annually.

The proposal surprised and angered some consumer and patient safety advocates who say the website is an important tool that helps New Yorkers choose doctors.

“They are just making it harder for consumers to shop smart for doctors,” said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group. “It’s wrong and we are going to do everything we can to kill the governor’s proposal.”

The state enacted a law in 2000 that called for the creation of the website. The legislation was spurred in part by some highly publicized cases in which patients were harmed by doctors with sketchy track records.

The state Health Department operates the website. In addition to legal actions taken against doctors, the website sheds light on their medical education and training, disciplinary actions for professional misconduct, board certifications, health insurance plans they accept and other background information.

The free site attracted more than 35,000 visitors in December.

It refers visitors seeking information about professional misconduct disciplinary actions against doctors to the state Office of Professional Medical Conduct website, which is also operated by the state Health Department.

The Health Department said much of the other information on the physician profile site can be found on websites operated by the American Board of Medical Specialties, the Federation of State Medical Boards, HealthGrades and WebMD.

The American Board of Medical Specialties, a nonprofit, allows users of its website to find out if a doctor is board certified. The site is free, but consumers must register to use it.

The Federation of State Medical Boards, a nonprofit, lets users search through its national data bank for disciplinary actions and other background information about doctors. It charges $9.95 per physician search.

The HealthGrades and WebMD websites, run by private companies, also provide some background information on doctors for free.

Horner of NYPIRG said information on the state’s physican profile website is more reliable because doctors are required by state law to provide information for the site. Doctors who provide erroneous information can be charged with professional misconduct.

Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, D-Manhattan, chair of the Assembly Health Committee, said consumers have no way of determining the credibility of other websites.

“It concerns me that we would shut down the only site with the official stamp of the health department,” said Gottfried, who sponsored a bill in 1999 to create the website. “As we move towards more transparency and public access to healthcare information, this proposal takes us in the opposite direction.”

Ilene Corina of Long Island helped lead a grassroots lobbying effort to create the website. Corina founded PULSE of New York, a patient advocacy group, in 1997 after her 3-year-old son bled to death after a routine tonsillectomy.

Corina said she knows of patients in hospitals who access the physician profile website on their smartphones because they don’t know the doctors treating them.

“We need to empower patients to be more involved in their care and use these services even more, not take it away,” she said.

The state Medical Society, which represents doctors, fought efforts to publicize malpractice information on the website. It persuaded lawmakers to limit the amount of malpractice information disclosed on the website. The profile was originally supposed to show all payments doctors made to settle malpractice lawsuits during the past 10 years. But lawmakers agreed to a request by the medical society to exclude a doctor’s first two payments. As a result, settlement payments only appear in a doctor’s profile if there have been three or more in the past 10 years. The profile does not show the dollar amount of payments, but indicates if the payments are average, below average or above average compared to settlement payments made by other doctors in the same specialty.

Elizabeth Dears of the state Medical Society said her group did not ask the state to get rid of the website.

Art Levin of the Center for Medical Consumers, a patient advocacy group that pushed for the creation of the website, said the site has never lived up to its expectations. He said the state did not provide enough funding for it or do enough to publicize it.

He said the cost of operating the website represents a small piece of Cuomo’s overall $142 billion proposed budget.

“What’s one million bucks to the state?” Levin said. “It’s like chump change.”