CMS decides not to extend contract of consultant who threatened Modern Healthcare

Felice J. Freyer

About Felice J. Freyer

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

The Centers for Medicaid & Medicare Services has decided not to extend the contract of the communications consultant who threatened to bar Modern Healthcare from press calls for refusing to alter a story.

The consultant, Brett O’Donnell, had sent a Jan. 24 email to a Modern Healthcare editor saying that “we will not be able to include your outlet in further press calls with CMS” if the publication did not change three sentences about the reasons for a CMS official’s resignation. That threat followed an email exchange the day before in which Virgil Dickson, the reporter who wrote the story, declined O’Donnell’s request to alter his account.

Virgil Dickson

On Feb. 1, Dickson was dropped from a CMS press call, and his editor confirmed with CMS that evening that he had in fact been banned. Two days later, CMS sent Covering Health a note asserting, “No reporters have been banned by CMS.”  And a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services later called the incident “unfortunate” and not reflective of HHS policy.

Phil Galewitz, senior correspondent for Kaiser Health News, learned of the decision not to renew O’Donnell’s contract last week, and a CMS official confirmed it in an email to Covering Health late Friday. The email stated: “O’Donnell & Associates was a subcontractor under an agreement that expired earlier this month and their work was completed so CMS is not extending the contract.”

CMS did not answer questions about how long O’Donnell worked for the agency or what his contract cost.

3 thoughts on “CMS decides not to extend contract of consultant who threatened Modern Healthcare

  1. Eileen Beal

    This move by CMS simply allows the agency to wash its hands of one person AND get rid of their culpability for his (and, therefore, CMS’s) action to restrict access to the agency.

    How can/does that kind of one-off response by CMS’s administrative leadership actually help ALL journalists. and, ultimately, how does this canceled contract benefit readers and listeners who depend on Medicare and Medicaid for their health care and therefore NEED to know what’s going on at/within CMS?

    E. Beal, Associate Member

  2. Dan Keller

    As reported, according to CMS the contract had expired (not that it was “canceled”), and since the work had been completed, the contract was not extended. CMS did not say that the matter with Modern Healthcare was the reason for not extending the contract. It leaves open the questions of what would have happended if the contract was still active, as well as what may happen in the future. Fortunately, the HHS spokesman did say that O’Donell’s actions did not reflect HHS policy.

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