Tag Archives: Right to know

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

Attorney argues confidentiality provision in SNAP case was misinterpreted

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.

The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals held hearings yesterday on a 2011 lawsuit brought by the Argus Leader of Sioux Falls, S.D., over whether data about the payments made to businesses participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, should be publicly available.

As Josh Gerstein reports for Politico, an attorney for the newspaper argued that “a lower court judge misinterpreted the law by ruling that a confidentiality provision for retailer applications allowed the U.S. Department of Agriculture to withhold all data on payments to those retailers.” 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

AHCJ urges government to release Medicare payment data

Charles Ornstein

About Charles Ornstein

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

AHCJ’s board of directors called on the federal government to release data on physician payments and utilization of services in the Medicare program.

In a letter sent Tuesday (PDF) to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the board said the release of the information is “long overdue.”

“The value of such information to the public far outweighs any privacy claims of physicians,” said the letter, signed by AHCJ executive director Len Bruzzese. “As long as patient confidentiality is protected, we see no reason why taxpayers should not know how individual physicians are spending public dollars.”

The letter came in response to CMS’ call for comments last month about whether and how it should release data on physician spending in Medicare Part B, the outpatient component of the program. A U.S. District Court in Florida overturned a 1979 injunction that had blocked the public release of data identifying payments to individual doctors. Dow Jones, which publishes The Wall Street Journal, challenged the injunction.

“The U.S. District Court was correct in lifting the 1979 injunction in response to dramatic changes in the health care landscape over the past three decades,” AHCJ’s letter said. “Beyond that, we believe an informed public makes better health care decisions.”

AHCJ cited stories by The Wall Street Journal and the Center for Public Integrity as examples of how reporters can use physician claims data for stories in the public interest. But it said those stories would have had wider resonance if the organizations were able to name physicians and allow members of the public to look up their own doctors. Continue reading

CDC reduces number of media contacts

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 U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently removed its list of media representatives by beat, replacing it with a handful of email addresses and phone numbers, with names only for the media office’s two top officials.

In response to AHCJ’s inquiry, Barbara Reynolds, director of CDC’s division of public affairs, said in an email that the change was an attempt “to improve [CDC’s] media request response times and ensure that it more accurately accounts for the volume of work it is doing.”

Reynolds wrote that the new system was intended to be more efficient. “The beat system could not keep pace with the media demand and changing topics of news importance in the agency and was frustrating for media when beat contacts were out of date,” Reynolds wrote. “We continue to be only a phone call away and respond to routine media inquiries 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. ET, M-F, and continue to respond to urgent and breaking news media requests 24/7.”

The old beat list can still be retrieved here, but Reynolds’ comments indicate that it is probably not up to date. Although many reporters prefer to contact a named individual rather than a generic inbox, this is how CDC has chosen to respond at a time of high media demand on federal agencies.

Health and Human Services officials have advised AHCJ that reporters who are dissatisfied with the response they receive from an agency should contact the top public affairs official at that agency. In the case of CDC, that’s Reynolds, who can be reached at 404-639-0575 or Bsr0@cdc.gov. If you are still unsuccessful, contact Dori Salcido, dori.salcido@hhs.gov, the HHS assistant secretary for public affairs.

Additionally, please let AHCJ’s Right to Know Committee know how this is working out and whether CDC is making good on its promise of efficiency and responsiveness. You can send your observations to me at felice.freyer@cox.net or to RTK Co-Chair Irene Wielawski at imw@cloud9.net.

LA Times op-ed calls for releasing information about food stamp program

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.

Image by MapScience via flickr.

The Los Angeles Times today published an op-ed by the co-chairs of the Association of Health Care Journalists’ Right to Know Committee calling on Congress and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to end the secrecy surrounding the multibillion-dollar food stamps program.

“The debate in Congress about cutting the food stamp program has sparked predictable clashes between those who want to help the poor and those who want to cut government spending,” the opinion column said. “But strangely missing from the arguments is a shocking fact: The public, including Congress, knows almost nothing about how the program’s $80 billion is spent.” 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:

Pa. bill would require disclosure of food stamp purchases

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.

Food stamps

Photo by cosmocatalano via Flickr

A Pennsylvania congressman last week filed a bill that would require retailers to report which items are bought with food stamps.

The proposed “SNAP Transparency Act,” sponsored by Republican Rep. Tom Marino, would require the secretary of agriculture to establish a uniform reporting system under which retailers would track “the complete range, identities, sizes, quantities, and costs of particular food items” purchased with benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps.

If passed, the legislation could give journalists and advocates access to long-sought information about the food purchases of SNAP recipients, at a time of growing concern about their access to healthy foods and about obesity and related health problems among the poor. Currently the U.S. Department of Agriculture does not have the authority to collect such information.

The act would address one of two issues raised in a recent letter to Agriculture Sec. Tom Vilsack from AHCJ and six other organizations representing journalists and open-government advocates. Continue reading

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 member speaks to attorneys about information in public health crises

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.

This is a guest post from AHCJ member Rose Hoban, R.N., M.P.H.

What kind of information are public health officials obligated to provide to members of the public during an epidemic?

That was the theme of a panel this month at the third Public Health Law Conference in Atlanta with the theme of “Informing the Public While Protecting Privacy.”

I was asked to be part of the panel as a result of my participation in a collaborative effort between members of AHCJ and the leaders of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officers and the National Association of County and City Health Officials, several state health directors, and representatives from federal agencies in 2010.

During that effort, we sat down to talk about creation of guidance for communicating during crises such as the H1N1 outbreak that took place in 2009-10.

Rosemary Hoban
Rose Hoban

I presented that guidance and the context of its creation to a room of about 40 attorneys who practice in the public health space. I acknowledged the difficulty public health officials have walking the line between giving journalists enough information to report effectively while allowing them to feel confident they’re protecting privacy. I also reassured them that by following the guidance, they’d be able to do both.

Also on the panel was Khaled El Emam, a professor of informatics from the University of Ottawa, who runs the Electronic Health Information Lab.

El Emam talked about his research in de-identifying personal identifying information in large databases, and the surprising ease with which one can glean personal information about an individual even within a large database.

He presented a tool developed by the lab that calculates the probability of an individual being identified in a given population. Continue reading