Tag Archives: freedom of information

Sunshine Week: Committee advocates for access to information

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.

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

Barring access to information, officials poses threat to public health

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.

Alice Dreger, a professor of clinical medical humanities and bioethics at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, writes for Pacific Standard Magazine about the public health threat caused by public officials who censor news, fail to respond to press queries or prevent health agency employees from speaking to journalists without a representative from the press office.

Dreger points to the current Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) crisis, referring to a piece in Wired by AHCJ board member Maryn McKenna. But she also reminds us that it was journalists who sounded the alarms about the dangers of thalidomide and the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, not to mention the journalists who pushed for more public awareness of AIDS when the Reagan administration was limiting the response to the emerging disease. 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:

Roundtable gives journalists chance to share tips on open access #ahcj13

Blythe Bernhard

About Blythe Bernhard

Blythe Bernhard reports on health and medicine for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and serves on AHCJ's Right to Know and Contest committees. She attended Health Journalism 2014 as an AHCJ-Missouri Health Journalism fellow, a program supported by the Missouri Foundation for Health.

Do your sources ask for email interviews or quote approval? Are press relations officers listening in on your interviews? The Right to Know Committee will host a roundtable discussion at Health Journalism 2013 on Thursday, March 14, to share stories and offer advice about these issues and other barriers to open and straightforward newsgathering.

A look at some of the issues, sessions and ideas to keep in mind for those planning to attend Health Journalism 2013, the annual conference of the Association of Health Care Journalists.

Peggy Peck, editor of MedPage Today, and Irene Wielawski, an independent journalist and founder of AHCJ, will join me in moderating the discussion. As members of the Right to Know Committee, we are advocates for public information and open access to government officials and medical experts.

Reporters at MedPage Today do not allow their sources to approve quotes. The website alerts readers when interviews are conducted in the presence of a publicist. Peck will talk about her decisions on these issues and advise other editors looking to implement similar policies in their newsrooms. Continue reading

AHCJ protests FDA surveillance of communication between reporters, scientists

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.

Following a New York Times report over the weekend that revealed the federal government secretly tracked communication sent by FDA scientists to “members of Congress, lawyers, labor officials, journalists and even President Obama,” the Association of Health Care Journalists has expressed alarm at the “Orwellian practices” in a letter sent to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

From the letter:

” … the pushback on journalists seeking information from HHS and its agencies, coupled with covert monitoring of scientists’ communications with journalists and elected representatives, reflects a culture of cynicism within your department toward the principles of open government, free speech, and the public’s right to know. The actions detailed in the Times story imperil all reporters’ relationships with HHS and its agencies.”

The letter goes on to request that the agency notify all reporters whose communications were intercepted and conduct an audit of all HHS divisions to find out how widespread the monitoring is.

The Times reports that the surveillance grew out of a “narrow investigation into the possible leaking of confidential agency information by five scientists” and “identified 21 agency employees, Congressional officials, outside medical researchers and journalists thought to be working together to put out negative and ‘defamatory’ information about the agency.”

The report was especially shocking to AHCJ because the association has been working for years to make it easier for reporters to interview federal employees and get information from HHS agencies. The HHS media office has been receptive to the organization’s concerns and pledged to improve responsiveness. Indeed, many members have reported improvements in access. But the Times story points a deeper culture running contrary to these efforts.

The FDA used software that tracked keystrokes and captured screenshots on the scientists’ computers. The documents were eventually posted on a public website, apparently by mistake, the Times says.