AHCJ protests troubling incidents at HHS, calls on Azar to open the doors

Felice J. Freyer

About Felice J. Freyer

Felice J. Freyer is AHCJ's vice president a member of the association's Finance and Development Committee and chair of the organization's Right to Know Committee. She is a health care reporter for The Boston Globe.

Excerpt of the letter sent to HHS Secretary Alex Azar. Click here to see the full letter.

AHCJ this week called on the new secretary of health and human services to hold frequent, open press conferences, and protested recent incidents at HHS that were deeply troubling to journalists.

In a letter Monday to HHS Secretary Alex Azar, AHCJ President Ivan Oransky congratulated the secretary on his appointment and expressed hope that reports Azar intends to foster transparency would prove true.

Alex Azar

“Explaining the department’s decisions through the media is the best way to help the public understand and appreciate your goals and policies,” Oransky wrote.

But he noted that AHCJ members were “puzzled and disheartened” that one of Azar’s first interactions with the media involved a conversation last week about a critical issue – the president’s proposals to control drug prices and his budget – that was limited to three reporters, followed by a failure to provide information to other reporters who requested it afterward.

“HHS’s decision to provide such important information exclusively to readers of three news outlets sends a message, unwittingly or not, that the department speaks to handful of elites, rather than all Americans,” Oransky wrote.

Photo: Jeff Porter/AHCJSeema Verma , administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, spoke at a briefing on public health emergencies at the CDC on Dec. 4.

The letter also asked Azar to encourage CMS Administrator Seema Verma to open her press briefings to all reporters, ending her practice of speaking only to a few selected by mysterious criteria.

“We were especially dismayed earlier this month when a reporter was abruptly removed from a [CMS] press call apparently as punishment for refusing to alter a story,” Oransky wrote. “That type of assault on press freedoms must not be repeated.”

The letter also gave praise where it was due, noting that FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb and NIH Director Francis Collins “write blog posts, meet with a range of reporters, and appear at public events” and that the CDC holds regular briefings open to all reporters.

“We hope that such frequent, open communication will become a matter of course throughout HHS,” Oransky’s letter said.

Oransky ended with an offer to meet with Azar and his media team “to discuss these issues and ways to clear the path to better communication with the public.”

The letter marks the second time that AHCJ has called on health officials in the Trump administration to face the public. On Sept. 20, 2017, Oransky wrote to then-secretary Tom Price and Verma, urging them to hold a press conference, something that neither had done over many months in office.

Neither Price nor Verma responded.

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