John O'Connor
John O’Connor

Journalists generally get all warm and tingly when previously guarded information becomes available. 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. Their goal is laudable: to make the public better informed. They describe themselves as “an independent, non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest.”

That’s great. So why am I not doing cartwheels? Two reasons. One, 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 likely will 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 also 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 one client. Or the client could be 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!: instant database of prospects, down to the facility.

Next thing you know, that imaginary counselor could conceivably be on TV, solemnly asking viewers if they suspect a loved one might have been given non-prescribed medications in a nursing home. Better yet, that hypothetical lawyer could be sending letters to residents’ family members, reminding them they might be entitled to compensation for dubious care practices.

And guess who pays? That’s right: nursing home operators. So if you are not doing so already, this might be a good time to lawyer up.

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