Category Archives: Right to know

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

AHCJ disappointed with ACGME’s response on transparency

Charles Ornstein

About Charles Ornstein

Charles Ornstein is a senior reporter with ProPublica in New York. The Pulitzer Prize-winning writer is a member and past president of the Association of Health Care Journalists' board of directors and a member of its Right to Know Committee.

ACGME-Response8-12-2014-1The Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education has rejected a request from AHCJ to publicly release additional information about the successes and failures of physician training programs nationwide.

Earlier this month, AHCJ called upon ACGME to release details about residency programs with less than full accreditation, as well as the rates at which graduates of residency programs pass their board certification examinations. ACGME posts decisions on favorable or less-than-favorable accreditation status but not the reasons for them.

Replying to AHCJ’s Aug. 5 letter, ACGME executive director Thomas J. Nasca, M.D., wrote that the organization would not provide the requested information, citing the confidentiality of ACGME’s review and decision process.

AHCJ president Karl Stark said he was disappointed by ACGME’s response. Continue reading

AHCJ pushes for more data on residency programs

Charles Ornstein

About Charles Ornstein

Charles Ornstein is a senior reporter with ProPublica in New York. The Pulitzer Prize-winning writer is a member and past president of the Association of Health Care Journalists' board of directors and a member of its Right to Know Committee.

The Association of Health Care Journalists has called upon the accreditor of physician residency programs to be more transparent with its data so the public can be better informed about the quality of graduate medical education programs in their communities.

In a letter sent last week to the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education, AHCJ praised the group for having a website that includes accreditation decisions for institutions and their individual training programs.

Karl Stark

Karl Stark

But it called on ACGME to publish additional information, echoing a similar call by an Institute of Medicine panel for greater transparency in graduate medical education.

“We believe ACGME can play an even greater leadership role by providing additional information or advocating for its release,” said the letter, signed by AHCJ president Karl Stark. “Doing so would be in keeping with the new Institute of Medicine report, which called for ‘transparency and accountability of GME programs.’” 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.

AHCJ, HHS officials address appeal process for inadequate responses by PIOs

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.

Reporters facing unreasonable delays or inadequate responses from media officials at an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) can bring their complaints to one of three deputy assistant secretaries for public affairs.

In a phone conference on Wednesday between top HHS media officers and AHCJ board members, these officials were named as contacts for reporters having difficulties. Their names and the agencies whose media offices they oversee are listed below.

The phone conference was one in a regular series in which leaders of AHCJ’s Right to Know (RTK) Committee work with the HHS public affairs office to improve government transparency and access to information and experts.

As chair of the RTK committee, I joined board President Karl Stark and RTK Vice Chair Felice J. Freyer in representing AHCJ. We spoke with Dori Salcido, assistant secretary for public affairs, News Division Director Bill Hall, and Deputy Assistant Secretary Mark Weber. Continue reading

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

Media groups decry CDC’s silence on W.Va. spill; agency admits communication missteps

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.

The recent chemical spill in West Virginia, which contaminated the drinking water of 300,000 people, became another occasion when federal agencies shut the door on reporters seeking answers, fueling public anxiety with their silence.

But after complaints from journalism organizations, including AHCJ, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week issued a mea culpa and a pledge “to work to reach that critical balance between accuracy and timely release of information the public expects and needs to protect their health.”

The CDC told West Virginia health officials on Jan. 15 that pregnant women should not drink the water until the chemical, called Crude MCHM, was at “nondetectable levels.” Reporters from the Charleston (W.Va.) Gazette had a lot of questions about this order – but could get no answers from the CDC press office. Continue reading

CMS data should give reporters a plethora of new stories to cover

Liz Seegert

About Liz Seegert

Liz Seegert (@lseegert), is AHCJ’s topic editor on aging. Her work has appeared in Kaiser Health News, The Atlantic.com, New America Media, AARP.com, Practical Diabetology, Home Care Technology report and on HealthStyles Radio (WBAI-FM, NYC). She is a senior fellow at the Center for Health, Media & Policy at Hunter College, NYC, and a co-produces HealthStyles for WBAI-FM/Pacifica Radio.

As Charles Ornstein pointed out, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services announced that it will release payment information for individual physicians in response to Freedom of Information Act requests, beginning in March. The move will increase transparency while still protecting the privacy of Medicare beneficiaries, according to a blog post by Jonathan Blum, principal deputy administrator.

According to a story in Modern Healthcare, the AMA has warned the Obama administration that it will be walking a thin line between balancing physician privacy rights with release of payment data – and that poor execution of the policy could lead to an unfair breach of confidentiality for providers and patients. Continue reading