Media officers for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services have promised to make top HHS officials available to answer reporters’ questions, after AHCJ President Ivan Oransky, M.D., called for a press conference with the HHS secretary and the administrator of the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services.
“We’re looking at ways to make our officials more available in multiple settings,” said Mark Weber, deputy assistant secretary for public affairs for human services. “It might not be a press conference but a series of venues.”
Weber also said that a much-publicized memo that seemed to crack down on communications from employees at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not represent HHS or CDC policy. It was written by a media officer seeking to clarify the rules, was circulated only within a single division of the agency, and does not supersede the existing HHS media policy, Weber said. That policy does not forbid employees to speak with reporters.
Weber’s comments came during an informal phone conversation among Weber, Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs Charmaine Yoest, and two AHCJ board members – Sabriya Rice and myself.
“We’d been trying to arrange this call for months, and we’re very happy that we had a chance to speak personally with Charmaine Yoest, the top HHS media official,” said Rice, who is vice chair of AHCJ’s Right to Know Committee. “We hope this opens a new channel of communication that will be helpful to AHCJ members.”
In September, Oransky wrote to then-Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price and CMS Administrator Seema Verma requesting that they hold a press conference. “In six months in office, you have taken few questions from the media, and yet changing the health care system is among the administration’s signature projects,” he wrote. “Our goal is to understand the administration’s policies so we can communicate them to the public.”
Neither Price nor Verma responded to AHCJ’s letter. Price has since resigned, after drawing fire for spending $400,000 on chartered flights.
Oransky said he hoped that Weber’s comments about making top officials more available signals that doors will open soon. “I look forward to getting word from HHS about the promised press availability,” he said. “It needs to happen soon – the news is moving quickly, especially in health care, and Americans deserve to hear from those in charge.”
The CDC memo that sparked a controversy was first brought to light by the news website Axios. Jeffrey Lancashire, a public affairs officer in the National Center for Health Statistics, wrote to employees in his division that “all correspondence with any member of the media” had to be cleared by the press office, even “the most basic of data requests.”
But Weber said that the memo did not reflect any change in policy. The HHS “Guidelines on the Provision of Information to the News Media” states: “In keeping with the desire for a culture of openness, HHS employees may, consistent with this policy, speak to members of the press about their work. However, HHS employees are not required to speak to the media.”
The policy further states: “When approached by a reporter, HHS employees should work with their immediate supervisor and coordinate with the appropriate public affairs office/personnel in their agency.” It also encourages employees who are presenting at public events to answer questions about their presentations from reporters who are attending.
Weber also affirmed that the appeals process brokered by AHCJ in 2014 remains in effect. Journalists having trouble getting information from an agency’s press office should appeal to one of three deputy assistant secretaries. Their contact information and the agencies they cover are listed here.
“We strongly urge reporters who hit roadblocks at HHS to take the issue up the chain of command,” Rice said.