Pia Christensen/AHCJJan Emerson-Shea, vice president of external affairs for the California Hospital Association, guides journalists in how to work with hospitals and patient privacy laws at Health Journalism 2015.
The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act was enacted nearly 20 years ago to make reporters gnash their teeth. Not quite, presenters at Health Journalism 2015 in Santa Clara, Calif., told their audience.
HIPAA, as it was birthed into law in 1996, was intended to make it easier for people to keep their health insurance when they change jobs. The law set standards for the electronic exchange of patient information, including protecting the privacy of such records. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued the Privacy Rule to implement that aspect of the law, and its Office of Civil Rights is in charge of enforcing it.
The Privacy Rule, which went into effect in April 2003, has made it more difficult for reporters to get information about individuals’ health care, such as the names and condition of accident victims. Hospital employees and reporters not well informed about the law make things even harder.
It is important to remember some key points about HIPAA and other patient privacy laws, presenters said: Continue reading
In early February, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services advertised a telephone question-and-answer session intended for “non-press associated individuals.” Essentially anyone could listen in – except the members of the media. Crazy, right?
But when a member of the Association of Health Care Journalists asked CMS to change the wording of the February invitation, the agency’s press office declined.
Learning of this, Irene Wielawski, chair of AHCJ’s Right to Know Committee, immediately contacted Mark Weber, a high-ranking public affairs official at HHS with whom the committee speaks regularly. Weber took action, and within days, a new invitation went out specifying that the call was open to all interested “people,” with no restrictions on the media.
A small victory – but a swift one, and an example of how a sustained push for government transparency can make a difference. Continue reading
In its ongoing effort to shed light on physician residency programs, AHCJ is announcing a new benefit for members: Access to national rankings calculated based on 50,000 peer nominations from board-certified physicians, with geographic weighting.
Last summer, AHCJ called for more transparency about the accreditation of physician residency programs, so the public can be better informed about the quality of graduate medical education programs in their communities.
In a letter sent 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. But AHCJ asked ACGME to publish additional information, including why individual programs and institutions have favorable or less-than-favorable accreditation status and the percentage of residents who pass their board exams.
While ACGME declined to provide that additional information, AHCJ has worked with Doximity Inc. to provide members the first comprehensive national research on residency programs. Continue reading
The 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
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.
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
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
This 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
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
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’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