N.J. Doctors Sue to Block Malpractice Data

May 10, 2004

A lawsuit has temporarily blocked the state from publicly releasing data on malpractice settlements and judgments against physicians practicing in New Jersey.

The information, from a state database on doctors’ malpractice history, was to have been released last week to North Jersey Media Group Inc., owner of The Record of Bergen County. The newspaper had filed a request for the information under the state’s Open Public Records Act.

The Medical Society of New Jersey, a professional group that is the New Jersey affiliate of the American Medical Association, filed a lawsuit Friday in U.S. District Court in Newark, seeking a temporary restraining order against release of the information.

“It will be far more difficult to settle future (malpractice) cases absent the assurance of confidentiality” of settlements, said Robert Conroy, attorney for the medical society. “Instead physicians will elect to try their cases before an imperfect and unpredictable jury system.”

The restraining order was not granted, but the newspaper and the state agreed the information will remain secret until oral arguments are heard, said Genene Morris, spokeswoman for the state Division of Consumer Affairs, which includes the agency that regulates doctors.

Morris, who declined to comment on the lawsuit, said oral arguments were scheduled for June 7.

The lawsuit challenges how Consumer Affairs interpreted the Health Care Consumer Information Act, a 2003 law that required the division to set up a physician profile Web site and toll-free telephone number for consumers to get information — including malpractice settlements and judgments — on specific physicians and podiatrists. The information was set for public release via the planned Web site on June 23.

The medical society argued the state law requiring public access to physicians’ malpractice data is unconstitutional because it would allow distribution of confidential settlement information from malpractice cases. That could violate patient privacy laws and contradict federal law, which prohibits states from interfering with contracts between private individuals, the medical society argued.

Micah Rasmussen, spokesman for Gov. James E. McGreevey, said McGreevey signed the law “because it’s important information for the public to have.”

“There’s no reason you should be able to have more information about a car you’re buying than about a doctor you’re selecting,” Rasmussen said.

Copyright 2004 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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