WASHINGTON – Patient advocacy groups and leading journalism associations are protesting an Obama administration decision to eliminate public access to an online database of anonymous physician disciplinary and malpractice records.

The groups want the Health Resources and Services Administration, or HRSA, to restore public access to the data, which journalists, researchers and consumer advocates have relied on to expose dangerous medical practices.

“Reporters for years have used this database to help document lax oversight of doctors by their state’s medical boards,” said Charles Ornstein, president of the Association of Health Care Journalists, one of three journalism groups that sent a letter to the HRSA administrator Thursday.

“They’ve found doctors with long trails of malpractice payouts who were never disciplined. They’ve found doctors who have been repeatedly suspended by hospitals but had clear licenses,” he continued. Ornstein, a senior reporter at ProPublica, is a former Los Angeles Times writer.

The database, known as the National Practitioner Data Bank, does not identify physicians by name, a protection required by law. But reporters and others have used the data, in conjunction with other records and research, to report on specific physicians.

Most recently, The Kansas City Star reported on Sept. 4 about physicians with long histories of alleged malpractice who had not been disciplined by the Kansas or Missouri medical boards.

That prompted HRSA to threaten the reporter with a fine and take down the database.