Good news, for lawyers

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John O'Connor, Editorial Director
John O'Connor, Editorial Director

We journalists tend to get all warm and tingly when previously guarded information is finally made public. It must be in our DNA. 

So I should probably be cheering ProPublica's announcement that the government is now releasing unredacted write-ups of problems found during nursing home inspections. 

Sorry, but I can't.

I'm not questioning ProPublica's motives. Its goal is laudable: to make the public better informed. It describes itself as “an independent, non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest.” 

That's great. So why am I not doing cartwheels? First, at this point in my life, the attempt might result in serious injury. 

But more important, releasing unredacted write-ups will not just make consumers better informed.

It also will likely fuel payday bonanzas for an army of personal injury attorneys -— especially those in the market for class-action lawsuits that target long-term care providers.

Previously, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services has kept the redactions hidden. CMS did this as a way to ensure privacy protections for residents. But ProPublica requested the unredacted reports, successfully arguing that they are public records and that the added information can make these records more useful. Both points are valid.

But let's consider what could happen. Imagine there might be a personal injury attorney out there looking to make nursing homes pay for using antipsychotics on residents with dementia. It could be for just one client. Or the client could be merely the tip of a payoff iceberg. 

All that hypothetical attorney needs to do now is go to Nursing Home Compare, and he or she can quickly tabulate how many patients with dementia were receiving antipsychotics. 

And, voila!: an instant database of prospects, sorted down to the facility level.

The Bible points out that the truth shall set us free. But this version of the truth also might send many operators on a path toward bankruptcy. 

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