Sunshine Week: Committee advocates for access to information

Irene M. Wielawski

About Irene M. Wielawski

Irene M. Wielawski (@wielawski), a founding member of AHCJ, is an independent writer and editor specializing in health care and policy. Wielawski, a member of AHCJ's board of directors, is chair of AHCJ’s Right to Know Committee and serves on the Freelance and the Finance and Development committees.

swlogo-198x300This is Sunshine Week, a yearly celebration of open government. It’s held every year in the week that includes the birthday (March 16) of President James Madison, a champion of the First Amendment.

Sunshine Week has its roots in a 2002 protest by journalists against efforts by Florida’s legislature to weaken the state’s public records law. Today, it is a national endeavor of the American Society of News Editors and The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, but many other organizations take the occasion to note the importance of open government and a free press. Sunshine Week’s slogan is “Your Right to Know,” which brings me to the work of the Right to Know Committee of the Association of Health Care Journalists.

Through research, letters, op-ed columns and meetings with government officials, the committee advocates for access to the information health care reporters need to do their jobs. But the purpose, says Vice Chair Felice J. Freyer, who has served on the committee since 2007, goes beyond making reporters’ jobs easier.

“In demanding government transparency, we’re upholding a fundamental principle of democracy – the citizens’ right to easily see what their government is doing, in their name, with their tax dollars,” Freyer says.

The work has its share of frustrations, not unlike journalism itself, where the reporting effort does not always yield commensurate public response. Our straight-up wins are rare but we have made progress on several fronts:

Promoting transparency in food stamp spending

The U.S. Department of Agriculture refuses to disclose how much money retailers make from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. AHCJ’s Right to Know Committee took up this issue in support of the Argus Leader newspaper of Sioux Falls, S.D., when its Freedom of Information Act request for this data was rejected. We wrote letters to USDA Sec. Tom Vilsack, collaborated with other journalism and open government organizations in advocating for disclosure, and wrote a Los Angeles Times op-ed last August that 45 news organizations reprinted.  In January, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th District unanimously rejected government arguments that FOIA did not apply to SNAP. The case, brought by the Argus Leader, has been sent back to the U.S. District Court for rehearing so it’s too soon to claim victory. But AHCJ has kept the issue in the spotlight, including a series of Covering Health blog posts. Our most recent blog post summarizes the case to date.

West Virginia water contamination

The Right to Know Committee took action on behalf of reporters in Charlestown, W.Va., who were being stonewalled by health officials on information about the effects of the toxic coal-washing chemical, Crude MCHM, which leaked from a defective storage container into the water supply for more than 300,000 people. The problem was brought to our attention by AHCJ member Paul Raeburn, who blogs at Knight Science Journalism Tracker.  We immediately contacted top officials in the press office of the Department of Health and Human Services, adding our voice to objections from other journalists and journalism organizations. HHS quickly organized a late afternoon media call. But as access problems continued, our colleagues at the Society of Environmental Journalists and the Society of Professional Journalists issued a joint letter of protest. The chief public information officer for CDC responded with a rare mea culpa.

Medicare payments to doctors

AHCJ also weighed in with a letter to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) in support of the release of data on what Medicare pays individual physicians. CMS wants to retain discretion over this information, and handle journalists’ and public requests on a case-by-case basis. Meanwhile, two bills in Congress would require CMS to open the data without further ado. The Right to Know Committee continues to monitor developments to advocate for maximum transparency.

Improving access to HHS information and experts

AHCJ holds regular telephone meetings with the top media affairs staff at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. We take this opportunity to relay specific complaints from members as well as to press for better access to experts and information. We have successfully intervened on behalf of individual reporters and to end such practices as holding meetings that are “open to the public but closed to the press.”

Looking ahead, we have three ongoing projects led by committee members:

Denise Fulton (dfulton@frontlinemed.com) is working to remove restrictions on recording and photography at the scientific meetings where medical groups release their research findings. A two-year campaign of letter writing, phone calls and appeals to reason has yielded significant improvement.

Deborah Schoch (mdschoch@usc.edu) leads a relatively new project to free up inspection data on assisted-living facilities and hospitals. States vary in how much information they release on hospital inspections and in how they regulate assisted-living facilities. The Right to Know Committee will advocate for more public access to regulatory and quality data that families need to inform their choice of care facility. Schoch will moderate a panel at Health Journalism 2014 on “Investigating senior care,” at 9-10:20 a.m. on March 29.

Blythe Bernhard (bbernhard@postdispatch.com) is our lead person on transparency in the roll out of the Affordable Care Act. We’re interested in your observations as you cover this far-reaching legislation.

The Right to Know Committee relies on AHCJ members to alert us to problems and suggest avenues for advocacy. During Sunshine Week, please take a moment to think about how we can help, and send your suggestions to the project leaders listed above or to me at imw@cloud9.net and Freyer at felice.freyer@cox.net. And, if you’d like to be more involved in AHCJ’s advocacy on behalf of journalists and the public interest, please join us!

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