AHCJ calls for improved media access to top federal health officials

The Association of Health Care Journalists has called on the nation’s top health officials to face questions about the Trump administration’s health initiatives.

In a Sept. 20 letter, AHCJ President Ivan Oransky asked Dr. Tom Price, health and human services secretary, and Seema Verma, administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, to hold a press conference – something that has yet to occur seven months into their tenure.  Neither has yet responded.

Tom Price

Journalists have had few opportunities this year to ask questions about the future of U.S. health care. This is a stark change from past practice.

Under previous administrations, health agency officials routinely held embargoed calls to discuss reports with journalists, whether on changes to the Medicare program or on the latest infectious disease findings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These calls enabled journalists from around the country to pose questions to top officials.

Additionally, after the Affordable Care Act became law, HHS officials invited journalists to its offices to question top officials in person — ­before, during and after the open enrollment period.

“Obamacare customers are nearing the next open enrollment, and as journalists it’s our responsibility to help them understand ways that their health insurance will change and what the goals of this administration will be,” said Kimberly Leonard, co-chair of the Washington, D.C. Chapter of AHCJ. “We need to hear from health officials to be able to report this information fairly and accurately.”

Seema Verma

In his letter, AHCJ president Oransky noted that the Trump administration is seeking to overhaul the nation’s entire health care system.

“Our goal is to understand the administration’s policies so we can communicate them to the public,” Oransky wrote. “No matter what ultimately happens in Congress, there are many issues to talk about during this critical time.”

AHCJ’s D.C. Chapter is leading the push for improved access, joined by the association’s Right to Know Committee. “Secretary Price and Administrator Verma are making decisions that deeply affect the lives of millions of Americans,” said Felice J. Freyer, AHCJ vice president and chair of the Right to Know Committee. “The public deserves to hear from them,”

The concerns raised in the letter echo broader access issues experienced by journalists around the country as they seek information from health agencies in the Trump administration. As pointed out in a recent Columbia Journalism Review article, reporters from mainstream news outlets and trade publications alike find that calls and emails to agencies go unanswered or get only cursory responses.

Oransky suggested a press conference be hosted as soon as possible at the HHS offices, with live streaming to allow reporters outside the Beltway to participate.

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