For successful information requests, be familiar with guidelines for HHS public affairs staff

Irene M. Wielawski

About Irene M. Wielawski

Irene M. Wielawski (@wielawski), an independent journalist based in New York, is a founder and former board member of AHCJ and serves on the organization’s Right to Know Committee.

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A year ago, AHCJ’s Right to Know Committee brokered an appeals process with the leadership of the Department of Health and Human Services media office for reporters facing unreasonable delays or inadequate responses from agency public information officers.

I’m happy to report that we’ve had a number of successes since then in clearing information logjams for individual reporters and policing violations of HHS’s media policy. But a year’s experience with this process has also made us wiser about what we need from AHCJ members to be effective.

In each case, success has hinged on reporters’ careful documentation of stonewalling by public information officers or outright violations of HHS rules. An example of the latter:

In February, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services publicly advertised a telephone question-and-answer session intended for “non- press associated individuals.” An AHCJ member challenged this with sound arguments but continued to get the runaround. He turned the matter – and, importantly, his email thread with CMS – over to our committee. We forwarded the thread and our own query to HHS’s public affairs leadership and, within hours, CMS issued a new invitation, minus the media restrictions.

How can you help the Right to Know Committee help you?

My first suggestion is that you familiarize yourself with HHS’s media policies. The department codified them in a 2011 document, “Guidelines on the Provision of Information to the News Media.”

Although AHCJ had no part in formulating these guidelines, we had been pushing for something in writing that would let reporters know the government’s ground rules and promote consistency among HHS agencies. After HHS issued the guidelines, AHCJ members were invited to comment. Our feedback led to several revisions, notably a clear statement that “meetings that are open to the public are, by definition, open to the news media.” This is what we leaned on in February to successfully challenge CMS’s exclusion of journalists from the Q&A session.

Knowledge of the guidelines can give you a leg up in your dealings with HHS agencies, especially in cases in which you are experiencing unreasonable delays – a direct violation of HHS’s stated expectation that its employees “respond promptly to media requests and respect media deadlines.” Your email string, including repeat queries and a time log documenting delay or inadequate response, is a very important tool for the RTK Committee to advocate effectively.

Finally, you can be your own advocate.

In brokering the appeals process, we had AHCJ members’ deadlines foremost in mind. To that end, we asked the HHS public affairs leadership to identify senior media officials to whom reporters could directly appeal. Staff at HHS has changed since I last wrote about this so here is the current leadership, contact information, and the agencies they supervise:

Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs for Public Health:
Bill Hall (202-690-6343; Bill.Hall@hhs.gov)
Agencies: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), National Institutes of Health (NIH), Office of Assistant Secretary of Health (OASH), Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR), Office of Global Affairs (OGA).
Issues: Tobacco, Obesity, Let’s Move, Alzheimer’s Disease, HIV/AIDS, Specialty/ Minority Outreach (incl. faith-based), Sustainability.

Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs for Human Services:
Mark Weber (202-260-6412; Mark.Weber@hhs.gov)
Agencies: Administration for Community Living (ACL), including Administration on Aging and Office on Disability (AoA/OD), Office for Civil Rights (OCR), Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration (SAMHSA), Administration for Children and Families (ACF), Departmental Appeals Board (DAB), and the Indian Health Service (HIS).
Issues: Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Head Start, child care, fatherhood, studio/publication planning and clearance.

Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs for Health Care:
Lauren Crawford (202-690-7048; Lauren.Crawford@hhs.gov)
Agencies: Affordable Care Act (ACA), Office of Human Resources (OHR), Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Service (CMS), Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight (CCIIO), Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC), and the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA).
Issues: Oversight and Outreach

If there are issues you’d like to bring to the attention of AHCJ’s Right to Know Committee or would like to work on, please contact Irene M. Wielawski, RTK chair, at imw@cloud9.net or Felice J. Freyer, RTK vice chair, at felice.freyer@cox.net. We welcome your ideas – and help!

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