Tag Archives: FOIA

Journalists, FOIA and the law: When should reporters sue?

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 and Home Care Technology report. She is a senior fellow at the Center for Health, Media & Policy at Hunter College in New York City, and co-produces HealthStyles for WBAI-FM/Pacifica Radio.

The job of a journalist is to seek the truth and report it. To provide comprehensive and fair accounts of issues. This mantra is written into the codes of ethics of journalism organizations worldwide.

Fred Schulte

However, when government officials throw up roadblocks, refuse to answer basic questions, and rely on excuses to thwart legitimate investigations into policy, presenting the whole truth to the public is nearly impossible. When requests for documents under the Freedom of Information Act are ignored, or responses delayed indefinitely, then it may be time to start filing legal challenges.

Such was the case with the Center for Public Integrity’s investigation into Medicare Advantage plans. Reporters tried for months to speak on the record with officials at CMS about the program’s financial probes and other oversight issues. CPI eventually filed Freedom of Information Act requests to get supporting documentation.

When CMS failed to respond after a year, CPI sued. Is this the only way to get government and other public organizations to open up their records? According to this tip sheet from Fred Schulte, it depends.

HuffPost dives into public records on King v. Burwell

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.

Photo by dbking via Flickr

Photo by dbking via Flickr

A key issue in King v. Burwell, the health care reform case argued before the Supreme Court in early March, is whether Congress intended to make certain subsidies available to eligible people across the country or only to those living in states that created their own health insurance exchange.

Sam Stein and colleagues at the Huffington Post filed public record requests with several key states, including some  in which prominent GOP governors did not establish exchanges. The reporters also reviewed records from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and more than 50,000 previously released emails from the Oklahoma governor’s office. The requests covered a period between the March 2010 passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and August 2011, when the IRS ruled that the subsidies should be available in all states.

How much discussion did Stein find about the risk of losing subsidies? 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 (@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.

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.