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    A Times Editorial

    Prescription for a coverup

    © St. Petersburg Times, published October 12, 2000

    With occasional fanfare, a blue-ribbon commission -- yes, another one -- is holding hearings around the state on how to make health care safer by reducing avoidable mistakes. But if anything useful results, it will be a miracle equal to the discovery of penicillin.

    The Florida Commission on Excellence in Health Care is ponderous with representatives of health professions, hospitals, nursing homes and the licensing boards they dominate. By law, 24 of the 36 members have such vested interests. These are, of course, the people whose conduct supposedly is under investigation. Only five members were required to be consumer advocates.

    What's more, the law forbids the commission from taking names of practitioners, hospitals, nursing homes or anyone else whose misdeeds, even lethal ones, come to light from investigation or public testimony.

    This gag rule goes so astonishingly far as to prohibit members of the public from naming names when they testify. When one citizen refused at a recent hearing to surrender his constitutional rights and insisted on naming the doctor against whom he was complaining, the commission admitted it could not silence him. But it warned that the name and any other identifying information would be censored. Another citizen, trying to comply, described the subject of her complaint as "a teaching hospital at Gainesville." There is, of course, only one. Will that too be redacted?

    The Legislature issued a prescription for coverup, not reform. The commission should address whether the Agency for Health Care Administration is whitewashing faulty health care by dismissing well-founded complaints without hearings. When that happens, the files are sealed even from the complaining victims. They are told the charge was dismissed but not why. The commission's gag rule appears calculated to insure that this shameful law remains unmolested.

    No one in the Legislature, or in AHCA or at the Department of Health, admits to knowing where the gag rule originated, but it appears in all versions of the legislation establishing the commission. Drafted by the health agencies and introduced separately by Rep. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, and others, it wound up as part of an enormous package that Republicans, but not Democrats, called a bill of rights for patients. In light of the grievous offense to their rights to free speech and to lobby, that title is more than mildly ironic.

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