Category Archives: Public records

Panelists urge journalists to report on how vaccines save lives #ahcj15

Katie McCrimmon

About Katie McCrimmon

Katie Kerwin McCrimmon is a senior writer for Health News Colorado. She attended Health Journalism 2015 on an AHCJ-Colorado Health Journalism Fellowship, which is supported by the Colorado Health Foundation.

Pia Christensen/AHCJRebecca Plevin, a health reporter at KPCC Southern California Public Radio, includes in her stories the fact that there’s no scientific evidence backing up claims that vaccines are harmful.

As a measles outbreak late last year spread from Disneyland to seven U.S. states affecting at least 147 people, one news organization on the front lines of the story made a deliberate decision about how to handle stories related to vaccines.

“Like climate change, there aren’t two sides to this story,” said Rebecca Plevin, a health reporter for KPCC Southern California Public Radio, referring to the fact that in both cases there’s no dispute over the science. There are not two sets of facts when it comes to vaccines, she said.

Plevin’s remarks came during a panel about vaccines at Health Journalism 2015 in Santa Clara, Calif.

When she’s doing stories about vaccine-preventable diseases or parents’ qualms about giving vaccines, Plevin now talks about the proven benefits of vaccines. If parents talk about diverting from recommended vaccine schedules or say they have fears that vaccines harm children, Plevin and her co-workers include a statement that there’s no scientific evidence backing up claims that vaccines are harmful. Continue reading

Journalists get guidance on navigating HIPAA rules #ahcj15

Sheila Hagar

About Sheila Hagar

Sheila Hagar (@ubsheilahagar) is a columnist, blogger and reporter for the Walla Walla (Wash.) Union-Bulletin newspaper. She attended Health Journalism 2015 as an AHCJ-Rural Health Journalism Fellow.

Pia Christensen/AHCJJan Emerson-Shea, vice president  of external affairs for the California Hospital Association, guides journalists in how to work with hospitals and patient privacy laws at Health Journalism 2015.

Pia Christensen/AHCJJan Emerson-Shea, vice president of external affairs for the California Hospital Association, guides journalists in how to work with hospitals and patient privacy laws at Health Journalism 2015.

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act was enacted nearly 20 years ago to make reporters gnash their teeth. Not quite, presenters at Health Journalism 2015 in Santa Clara, Calif., told their audience.

HIPAA, as it was birthed into law in 1996, was intended to make it easier for people to keep their health insurance when they change jobs. The law set standards for the electronic exchange of patient information, including protecting the privacy of such records. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued the Privacy Rule to implement that aspect of the law, and its Office of Civil Rights is in charge of enforcing it.

The Privacy Rule, which went into effect in April 2003, has made it more difficult for reporters to get information about individuals’ health care, such as the names and condition of accident victims. Hospital employees and reporters not well informed about the law make things even harder.

It is important to remember some key points about HIPAA and other patient privacy laws, presenters said: Continue reading

Investigation reveals dental board’s lack of transparency

Mary Otto

About Mary Otto

Mary Otto, a Washington, D.C.-based freelancer, is AHCJ's topic leader on oral health, curating related material at healthjournalism.org. She welcomes questions and suggestions on oral health resources at mary@healthjournalism.org.

Image by SalFlako via flickr.

Image by SalFlako via flickr.

How transparent is your state dental board when it comes to helping patients find out more about their dentists?

In Arizona, the state board of dental examiners has taken actions against hundreds of dentists in recent years. But it can be difficult for a patient in the state to find out if his or her dentist has been in trouble.

Linda Holt started worrying about the quality of her dental care after suffering complications from an implant procedure, Phoenix-based ABC-15 television explained in one part of a recent investigative series.

But if she had checked the profile of her dentist, Glenn Featherman, on the Arizona Board of Dental Examiner’s website she would not have been able to tell that he had recently been cited by the board for problems that arose with an implant procedure he performed on another patient. Continue reading

How AHCJ engages in sustained push for transparency year round

Felice J. Freyer

About Felice J. Freyer

Felice J. Freyer is a member of AHCJ's board of directors, serving as vice chair of the organization's Right to Know Committee. She is a medical writer for The Providence (R.I.) Journal.

Sunshine Week logoIn early February, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services advertised a telephone question-and-answer session intended for “non-press associated individuals.” Essentially anyone could listen in – except the members of the media. Crazy, right?

But when a member of the Association of Health Care Journalists asked CMS to change the wording of the February invitation, the agency’s press office declined.

Learning of this, Irene Wielawski, chair of AHCJ’s Right to Know Committee, immediately contacted Mark Weber, a high-ranking public affairs official at HHS with whom the committee speaks regularly. Weber took action, and within days, a new invitation went out specifying that the call was open to all interested “people,” with no restrictions on the media.

A small victory – but a swift one, and an example of how a sustained push for government transparency can make a difference. Continue reading

Report reveals the challenges behind covering patient safety

Joseph Burns

About Joseph Burns

Joseph Burns (@jburns18), a Massachusetts-based independent journalist, is AHCJ’s topic leader on health insurance. He welcomes questions and suggestions on insurance resources and tip sheets at joseph@healthjournalism.org.

Michael L. Millenson

Patient safety is a critically important topic for health care journalists. Yet collecting the data needed to report on it thoroughly can be frustratingly difficult.

For a new report, former journalist Michael L. Millenson (@MLMillenson), explains the challenges he and his colleagues encountered collecting the data they needed to produce a nonpartisan report, “The Politics of Patient Harm: Medical Error and the Safest Congressional Districts.” The first analysis of patient safety by congressional district, the report ranks each district as good, fair or poor on patient safety.

Early in his career, Millenson covered health care for The Chicago Tribune. He is the author of “Demanding Medical Excellence: Doctors and Accountability in the Information Age,” and president of Health Quality Advisors LLC.

For this patient safety report, he found that – even in the best districts – at least one person dies needlessly every day and eight patients are harmed. The report also shows that 14 more individuals die and 105 are injured every month in hospitals in districts rated “poor” on safety than in those rated “good.”

In poor districts, preventable medical errors cause an average of 553 deaths and 4,148 injuries annually. In fair districts the average annual rate was 469 deaths and 3,518 injuries and in good districts, the rate was 385 deaths and 2,888 injuries.

In a new “How I did it” article, Millenson explains the challenges of collecting and reporting the data needed to compare one congressional district against others.

“In health care, cooking up answers to what look like simple questions can quickly get complicated,” he writes. Surprisingly, it was difficult just to determine how to define the term “hospital” because there are so many different types of hospitals. Just distinguishing a local hospital’s performance from that of another hospital miles away was challenging because multiple hospitals owned by one system may share a provider billing number, he explains.

For journalists, this report and Millenson’s explanation of how it was compiled is useful for comparing patient safety scores in one district versus others, and it’s useful as a way to keep the issue of patient safety in the public eye 15 years after the publication of the Institute of Medicine’s landmark report on the subject, “To Err is Human: Building a Safer Health System.”

Calif. reporter finds dearth of public records on assisted-living homes

Deborah Schoch

About Deborah Schoch

Deborah Schoch is a senior writer with the CHCF Center for Health Reporting at the USC Annenberg School for Journalism & Communication. She is a member of AHCJ’s Right-to-Know Committee and can be reached at mdschoch@usc.edu or 626-457-4281.

Photo by Ed Yourdon via Flickr

Photo by Ed Yourdon via Flickr

I knew next to nothing about the fast-growing assisted-living industry when I started reporting in early 2013 on problem homes in San Diego.

For example, I did not know that many seniors in today’s assisted-living homes are so frail and medically needy that they would have been in nursing homes 20 or 30 years ago. Many live in facilities with no medically trained staff.

Most astonishing to me was the lack of public access to state regulatory reports revealing the quality of care in homes, not only in California but nationally. We’re so accustomed to NursingHomeCompare and HospitalCompare – whatever their flaws – that the hoops families and journalists must leap through to judge an assisted-living home’s quality seem downright primitive. Continue reading

Documents yield true cost of Illinois’ PR campaign for insurance coverage

Joanne Kenen

About Joanne Kenen

Joanne Kenen, (@JoanneKenen) the health editor at Politico, is AHCJ’s topic leader on health reform and curates related material at healthjournalism.org. She welcomes questions and suggestions on health reform resources and tip sheets at joanne@healthjournalism.org.

Carla K. Johnson

Carla K. Johnson

When Illinois awarded a $33 million contract to a high-priced PR firm to promote insurance coverage under the Affordable Care Act, Carla Johnson began filing open records requests under the state’s Freedom of Information law.

Eventually Johnson, a medical writer for The Associated Press, filed 10 FOIA requests while reporting on how public money was spent to promote the health law.

She says the “88-page contract, obtained through a records request, contained clues about other existing documents, such as monthly detailed explanations of invoices and a ‘work plan’ required by the contract.” She continued filing requests until she had enough documentation to detect some trends.

Read more about how Johnson reported the story, what she learned and tips for other reporters.

Sunshine Week: Committee advocates for access to information

Irene M. Wielawski

About Irene M. Wielawski

Irene M. Wielawski, a founding member of AHCJ, is an independent writer and editor specializing in health care and policy whose honors include two team Pulitzer Prizes and a Pulitzer finalist citation for medical journalism. Wielawski, a member of AHCJ's board of directors, is chair of AHCJ’s Right to Know Committee and also serves on the Freelance and the Finance and Development committees. You can follow her at @wielawski.

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: Continue reading

Judge cites journalists’ work among reasons to unseal pricing data

Joseph Burns

About Joseph Burns

Joseph Burns (@jburns18), a Massachusetts-based independent journalist, is AHCJ’s topic leader on health insurance. He welcomes questions and suggestions on insurance resources and tip sheets at joseph@healthjournalism.org.

Two rulings in one week in a case involving an Idaho hospital’s purchase of a physician group gave health care journalists a couple of significant stories to cover. The first one set a legal precedent, and the second one gave us a rare up-close look into how hospitals can drive up costs when acquiring physician groups.

Interestingly, the judge cited the work of two health care journalists who have covered the issue of rising health care costs in the past year as being among the reasons to unseal documents the parties in the case wanted to keep from the public.

In the first ruling on Jan. 24, B. Lynn Winmill, chief judge of the U.S. District Court in Idaho, found that St. Luke’s Health System in Boise violated antitrust law (specifically, the Clayton Act and the Idaho Competition Act) when it acquired the Saltzer Medical Group, a 40-physician practice in nearby Nampa.

“This case represents the first time that a federal court has decided a case against a physician practice acquisition,” the health law practice of Epstein Becker & Green wrote on Friday in an alert to clients. The court ordered St. Luke’s to unwind the merger, although the hospital said it would appeal. Covering Health carried this story last week. Continue reading

Court strikes down USDA claim that food stamp program data is exempt from FOIA

Irene M. Wielawski

About Irene M. Wielawski

Irene M. Wielawski, a founding member of AHCJ, is an independent writer and editor specializing in health care and policy whose honors include two team Pulitzer Prizes and a Pulitzer finalist citation for medical journalism. Wielawski, a member of AHCJ's board of directors, is chair of AHCJ’s Right to Know Committee and also serves on the Freelance and the Finance and Development committees. You can follow her at @wielawski.

SNAPIn a victory for advocates of government transparency, a federal appeals court on Tuesday rejected the government’s arguments for withholding data on how much money individual retailers earn from food stamps.

Acting in a case brought by a South Dakota newspaper, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit unanimously ruled against the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s claim that a federal law bars disclosure of retailers’ earning from food stamps.

The Argus Leader in Sioux Falls filed suit after the USDA rejected the newspaper’s Freedom of Information Act request for data on annual payments to individual retailers from 2005 to 2010. The USDA argued that a law protecting the privacy of retailers’ applications to participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP (the official name for food stamps) prohibited release of that information. A district court had earlier sided with the government, ruling that this information was exempt from FOIA, but the appeals court on Tuesday disagreed. Continue reading