Tag Archives: FOIA

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

Judge’s decision puts Medicare data in public realm

Pia Christensen

About Pia Christensen

Pia Christensen (@AHCJ_Pia) is the managing editor/online services for AHCJ. She manages the content and development of healthjournalism.org, coordinates social media efforts of AHCJ and assists with the editing and production of association guides, programs and newsletters.

A decision announced Friday would allow the public and journalists access to Medicare claims data about individual doctors.

An injunction barring release of the data had been in place for 33 years, “when a federal court in Florida sided with the American Medical Association’s contention that doctors’ right to privacy trumped the public’s interest in knowing how tax dollars were spent,” according to John Carreyrou of The Wall Street Journal.

“Dow Jones & Co., The Wall Street Journal’s parent company, challenged the injunction in 2011 after the Journal published a series of articles showing how the information could be used to expose fraud and abuse in the $549 billion health-care program for the elderly and disabled.”

Wall Street Journal reporters, who negotiated for eight years worth of data if they did not publish identities, wrote a series of stories about Medicare data, showing that the federal government isn’t taking advantage of the data it has to detect fraud. The Wall Street Journal’s articles have offered a window into the forces driving up health spending and shown that analyzing the data can reveal abuse and fraud in the Medicare system.

“The public has a right to know how much physicians are being paid by Medicare and what services they are providing patients,” said AHCJ President Charles Ornstein. “With analysis and context from journalists, the data could help patients make informed decisions and provide necessary oversight of billions of dollars in federal spending.”

Carreyrou reports the American Medical Association “is considering its options on how best to continue to defend the personal privacy interests of all physicians.”

The Crushing Cost of Care,” by the WSJ’s Janet Adamy and Tom McGinty, won first place in the Health Policy (large) category of the 2012 Awards for Excellence in Health Care Journalism.

Read more about the Medicare data and the fight to open it to the public:

After 5-year FOIA fight, documents show ties between researchers, officials in Lyme wars

Pia Christensen

About Pia Christensen

Pia Christensen (@AHCJ_Pia) is the managing editor/online services for AHCJ. She manages the content and development of healthjournalism.org, coordinates social media efforts of AHCJ and assists with the editing and production of association guides, programs and newsletters.

Documents obtained after a long FOIA battle reveal “behind-the-scenes maneuvers and long-standing connections between the scientists’ group and government officials” in the debate over whether Lyme disease can be chronic.

The debate, and the fight for the documents, are detailed by Mary Beth Pfeiffer in the Poughkeepsie (N.Y.) Journal and by documentary film maker Kris Newby on IRE’s Transparency Watch blog.

In 2007, in doing research for a film, Newby requested emails and resumes pertaining to three employees at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. She writes that “For five years the agency strung me along with frivolous denials, mysterious delays, shifting explanations and false promises. In essence, the delays became an illegal, off-the-books FOIA denial.” Her account of how the CDC handled – or didn’t handle  her request is alarming.

Newby, whose film had been completed, provided the 3,000 pages of documents to Pfeiffer.

The documents show close connections between the government officials who set disease policy and researchers who have received government funds and written treatment guidelines. “As a result, physicians and scientists with opposing views on Lyme disease believe they have been marginalized in the debate.” This graphic provides a good overview of the connections and issues.

Investigations spotlight workplace safety

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism, and he has blogged for Covering Health ever since.

Workplace safety got plenty of attention last week, from a public radio investigation in Seattle to a series by the Center for Public Integrity that includes plenty of opportunities for localizing.

KUOW’s John Ryan conducted hit the topic from all sides, with a five-part series on workplace safety in Washington. His story selection ranges from stats-directed investigations to features focusing on unique cases.

Chris Hamby did a two-part investigation in the Center for Public Integrity’s iWatch News on OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Programs, which exempt “model workplaces” from regular inspections (Part 1, Part 2).

Over the course of his eight-month investigation, Hamby pored over thousands of pages of documents which revealed, among other things, that “Since 2000, at least 80 workers have died at these sites, and investigators found serious safety violations in at least 47 of these cases.”

Workers at plants billed as the nation’s safest have died in preventable explosions, chemical releases and crane accidents. They have been pulled into machinery or asphyxiated. Investigators, called in because of deaths, have uncovered underlying safety problems — failure to follow recognized safety practices, inadequate inspections and training, lack of proper protective gear, unguarded machinery, improper handling of hazardous chemicals.

Yet these companies have rarely faced heavy fines or expulsion from the program. In death cases in which OSHA found at least one violation, VPP companies ultimately paid an average of about $8,000 in fines. And at least 65 percent of sites where a worker has died since 2000 remain in VPP today.

The program, with its emphasis on cooperation between regulators and industry, began under the Reagan administration and greatly expanded under the most recent Bush regime. There are some success stories, Hamby found, but he also uncovered a hearty helping of dirty laundry. Those included preventable deaths traced to OSHA violations, failures to self-police and an emphasis on expanding program participation at the expense of quality and safety.

In the second installment, Hamby spotlights oil refineries to illustrate what became a familiar pattern.

Recognition of “model workplace” status, missed opportunities to detect and fix hazards, a serious mishap or fatal accident, detection of safety violations and, ultimately, continuation of the government’s stamp of approval.

Hamby backs up these strong words with even stronger numbers. Here’s just one sample:

During 2009 and 2010, at least 21 of 55 fires at refineries falling under federal jurisdiction occurred at VPP sites, an iWatch News analysis of regulatory and news media reports found. VPP sites make up about 30 percent of these refineries, so these government-recognized sites have experienced more than their proportionate share of fires.

Reporters have already produced local versions of Hamby’s story throughout the country, particularly in Florida and Louisiana.

Related: OSHA lists 147 employers as “Severe Violators” of worker safety standards

Hot pipes lead reporter to radioactive aquifer

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism, and he has blogged for Covering Health ever since.

Mark Greenblatt, reporter for KHOU-Houston, reports that officials in Central Texas have been alarmed to discover high levels of radiation in the pipes and related systems that provide much of the region’s drinking water.

According to local officials, the contamination comes from years of exposure to drinking water that already tests over federal legal limits for radioactive radium. Of even more concern, they say, is that any water quality testing is done before the water runs through the contaminated pipes that could be adding even more radiation.

Almost as remarkable as the waterborne radiation itself? The fact that it was only discovered when city workers dug up old piping, brought it to the recycling center and were rejected because they were “too radioactive” to recycle.

Through his sources, Greenblatt knew the documents and tests proving the connection between a radioactive aquifer and “hot” pipes existed, but getting his hands on them was a different matter.

The call (with sources) was prompted by internal documents from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which identified a main source of the region’s water as radium contaminated. The TCEQ had initially refused to release the paper after a public-records request, and only did so under order from the Attorney General of Texas.

Greenblatt’s story runs much deeper, and it’s worth taking the time to appreciate the scope of his dense, document-rich investigation.

Reporter FOIA’s database further exposing the toll war takes on returning vets

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism, and he has blogged for Covering Health ever since.

Writing for the Bay Citizen and The New York Times, Aaron Glantz brings a new, data-based take on the mental and physical toll the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have taken on returning veterans, thanks to what he calls “an obscure government database called the Beneficiary Identification Records Locator Subsystem death file,” which he obtained via FOIA.

The database, which reveals a high rate of suicide and fatally risky behavior, lists all veterans who earned Veterans Affairs benefits since 1973.

Records from that database, provided to The Bay Citizen under the Freedom of Information Act, show that the VA is aware of 4,194 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who died after leaving the military. More than half died within two years of discharge. Nearly 1,200 were receiving disability compensation for a mental health condition, the most common of which was post-traumatic stress disorder.

Names were redacted, but Glantz nonetheless managed to identify a number of veterans, including a troubled 26-year-old man who threw himself under a train just three days after being turned away by the VA. In the course of his investigation, Glantz has managed to fill in some of the gaps in the federal records, a process which has shown just how lacking the VA’s data can be.

In October, The Bay Citizen, using public health records, reported that 1,000 California veterans under 35 died from 2005 to 2008 — three times the number killed in Iraq and Afghanistan during the same period. At the time, the VA said it did not keep track of the number of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who died after leaving the military.

The VA database does not include veterans who never applied for benefits or who were not receiving benefits at the time of their death, according to the agency. The VA said it also did not keep track of the cause of death.

When confronted with his agency’s shortcomings, a VA representative responded in a manner that belied his agency’s lack of focus on recordkeeping.

David Bayard, a VA spokesman, said the agency was working hard to treat veterans with mental health issues. “VA has some pretty fine programs,” Mr. Bayard said, “but unfortunately we aren’t always successful.”

Emails show Texas council’s disregard for EPA regs

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism, and he has blogged for Covering Health ever since.

Thanks to an order from the Texas Attorney General, Mark Greenblatt, of KHOU-Houston, obtained emails (2-page PDF) which demonstrate the state water advisory council’s conscious effort to effectively defy certain EPA water quality regulations related to radionucleotide content.

Texas Commission on Environmental Quality accomplished this trick by subtracting the counting error from otherwise dangerous test results, thus successfully dropping them below necessary thresholds. With the numbers below the threshold, there was no formal violation and authorities could get away with not warning residents about their potentially harmful water supply. The dodge continued until 2008, when it was caught by federal auditors.

The health highlights of two years of Guardian data

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism, and he has blogged for Covering Health ever since.

In two years, the Guardian’s data blog has published more than 600 data sets. I know this because, thanks to their nifty summary post, I just browsed the full list. In addition to more than a few UK analogues to the sort of stuff we see from AHRQ and NCHS, such as UK life expectancy, birth rates and aging populations and public spending, they’ve also got the sort of global health stuff that any journalist or blogger could pull out and use in a post tomorrow. I’ve collected some of my favorites and tried to strike a good balance between unique stuff and broad-spectrum, widely available global health data.

And finally, for no particular reason, here’s the outcome of every freedom of information request ever filed by the BBC. Also in the category of “data for curious journalists/insiders”? Several years of UK libel cases.

Nonprofit hospitals pay country club dues for execs

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism, and he has blogged for Covering Health ever since.

In what would seem a logical follow up to last year’s piece on hospital salaries, KUOW’s John Ryan has used public records to look at the top salaries at Seattle-area nonprofits this year.

This time, he focuses on the job perks given to nonprofit executives as much as he does their paychecks. Among them, Ryan writes, “Eight hospital systems in our region reported paying membership dues for their executives at clubs like the Columbia Tower Club and the Kitsap Golf and Country Club.”

A PDF of the salaries is also available. For more on how Ryan puts it all together, see the how-to he posted with last year’s edition.

ProPublica releases ratings of 5,000 dialysis providers

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism, and he has blogged for Covering Health ever since.

On the heels of a successful FOIA request related to Robin Fields’ dialysis investigation, ProPublica has published a database evaluating dialysis clinics on 15 different measures. The information has been available to state health agencies for years, but this is the first time it’s been released for general public consumption, Fields writes.

Patients have long chosen dialysis clinics based only on location or physician recommendation, even though the data shows a wide variation in quality among the 5,000-plus such facilities nationwide.

In more than 200 counties nationwide, the data show, the gap between facilities with the best and worst patient survival, adjusted for case-mix differences, is greater than 50 percent. In areas such as Allegheny County, Pa., or Franklin County, Ohio, each with upwards of two dozen clinics, the differences are even more substantial, exceeding 200 percent.
There is also wide variability in how often patients at different clinics are hospitalized for septicemia. Although septicemia cases can be unrelated to dialysis, it is a significant risk for patients, who typically have their blood cleaned of toxins three times a week. Nationally, the rate was about 12 percent a year for 2006 to 2008. But in dozens of counties, the spread between facilities with the highest and lowest rates was more than 25 percentage points.

Like Dollars for Docs, this new database should provide plenty of ready localizations of of the story.