Thursday, November 29, 2012

Freedom of Information is Not Exactly Free

I am still trying to figure out how to access information from the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).  Some data acquired through this act  has proven to be valuable from a research standpoint.  I first became aware of this data a a research technique in the excellent studies by Kahn, looking at the issue of suicide in placebo controlled drug trials of antidepressant and antipsychotic medications.  These were excellent studies and I am surprised that they are not widely referred to whenever the issue of suicidal behavior secondary to a medication or suicidal behavior in drug trials is discussed.  Kahn, et al accessed their raw data through FOIA requests through the FDA.

I have been trying for a long time to access data from the FBI on the basis of an FOIA request.  I started out about 10 years ago and asked them for specific data pertaining to their pre-911 role of auditing physicians billing practices and determining whether or not a physician had committed "fraud" based on a mismatch between the billing statement and the document of the clinical visit.  I know that they had specific documents about this practice and even briefly published a journal detailing their strategies and tactics.  At one point that data was online and then it disappeared.  In order to have a closer look at FBI activity in the area of health care fraud I filed the original request that resulted in no data.  This year, I looked at the FBI reading room again and it discussed the wide availability of information in that venue that could also be copied and sent at a cost to the requester.  Using the FBI form and broadening the request to data pertaining to health care fraud, I completed the following form on the FBI web site on September 1, 2012 (click graphic to expand):

   I  think that it is fairly clear that I am interested in activities pertaining to health care fraud.   I received the following reply today (click graphic to expand):

That is quite a price tag.  $66,702.50 for 667,125 pages or $7,985 for 533 CDs.  I can't imagine that there is a lot of relevant data contained in these pages.  The documents I am looking for comprise no more than 200 pages.  Using their rates that is $20 of information.  The result when I specifically ask for information that I am certain they have is a denial.  If I try to broaden the search and look for myself they offer to send me what could be a small directory off a hard drive.  Figuring 14 kB per page that converts to about 8.9 GB.  The fact that they are willing to send CDs suggests to me that it is already sitting on a hard drive.  My point here is that all of this data could be sitting on a hard drive somewhere in a federal building and I could be searching it from home for free.

If data is declassified and available to the public, why jump through all of these hoops to get it?  If the data was available, I don't think it would be too hard to trace the FBI activity in health care fraud against physicians and get all of the facts out on the table.  As it stands both price tags in this FOIA request are too steep for me and that story will have to be written at another time.  As with many problems that occur with our government  that time is usually when anyone who cared about the issue, all of the politicians responsible for it, and the bureaucrats who actually administered it are long gone.

George Dawson, MD, DFAPA

1 comment:

  1. This matter concerns everyone, that reason is enough for us to be vigilant and be informed.
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