HHS secretary promises ‘open and transparent’ relationship with media

Kimberly Leonard

About Kimberly Leonard

Kimberly Leonard (@leonardkl) is a member of AHCJ’s Right to Know Committee and co-chair of the Washington, D.C., chapter. She covers Congress, the White House, and the Department of Health and Human Services as a health care reporter for the Washington Examiner.

Alex Azar

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar pledged in his first on-the-record press conference Tuesday that he will have an “open and transparent” relationship with reporters, and said he does not envision a scenario in which anyone would be banned from covering the agency.

The statement, a welcome commitment to reporters, came one week after the Association of Health Care Journalists sent Azar a letter urging him to hold regular press conferences.

Until Tuesday’s meeting, held nearly a year after the start of the Trump administration, reporters had been given scant access to health agency officials. Information on policy changes was often provided to a small number of journalists before it became more widely available.

But Azar signaled a new era was ahead, first expressing regret, without prompting, that he had been unable to meet with reporters sooner. He noted that he came into his role Jan. 29, and last week faced several hearings on the president’s budget proposal.

“So you can imagine I ended up being walled away reading briefing books initially, so I apologize that we have not been able to get together before that,” he said, adding that he hoped to hold regular, in-person meetings with reporters who cover HHS, perhaps as often as every few weeks to answer questions.

“Please don’t feel this is a one-shot deal,” he added of the meeting he held Tuesday.

The first presser: ‘You all have a job to do’

More than 30 reporters attended Tuesday’s press event, including the Washington Post, the New York Times, NPR, Vox, Axios, the Washington Times, Stat News, MedPage Today, Modern Healthcare, and the Hill.

Donna Young, senior reporter at S&P Global/SNL Financial News said she had not received an invitation for the briefing. HHS spokesman Ryan Murphy said it was an accidental oversight and that Young would be invited in the future.

Azar signaled during the press conference that barring reporters from access would be against his policy.

“I can’t even envision that,” he said to a question by Associated Press reporter Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar about what could cause a reporter or outlet to be banned from access. “I don’t get to pick and choose. You all have a job to do.”

Alonso-Zaldivar pointed to former HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt’s media policy when he held the role under former President George W. Bush. Azar had been deputy secretary at HHS during that time.

“He had regular, open interchange with the media,” Alonso-Zaldivar said. “It’s something that even when things were not going well … It’s something that I believe was beneficial to the department because it clearly bolstered the credibility of the administration that they were able to step up and answer questions.”

Azar noted that he already knew a lot of reporters in the room from his previous role at HHS.

“My expectation and desire would be that we would have a professional, open and transparent as possible relationship and that we would have regular interactions,” he said.

Most of the press conference focused on health care policy. Azar answered questions about short-term health insurance plans, a proposal that had been posted hours earlier, and spoke to a range of other topics, from Medicaid changes to bills in Congress meant to replace or stabilize the Affordable Care Act.

After the meeting, Azar spent 30 minutes greeting reporters.

Press call preceded meeting

Tuesday’s in-person meeting followed a press call HHS held two hours earlier that detailed the Trump administration’s proposal on short-term plans. The call was open to reporters across the country and no one appeared to have been provided early, exclusive access.

Azar delivered remarks at the start of the phone call but did not take questions at the time because he had another appointment.

During the call, Seema Verma,  administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, answered questions on the record for 20 minutes after delivering her initial remarks. An HHS official also spoke on background to answer technical questions about the policy.

Questions during the call came from reporters at CNN, the Associated Press, the Hill, Kaiser Health News, Bloomberg, the Washington Post, Vox, Reuters and the Washington Examiner.

Months of lockout and confusion

Azar’s first press conference with reporters signals a shift in policy that deviates sharply from his predecessor, Dr. Tom Price, who did not hold any meetings with large numbers of reporters during his nine-month tenure at the agency. Price resigned in October following a Politico investigation that revealed the government spent more than $1 million on his travel costs involving private charter jets.

AHCJ members expressed some skepticism at the start of Azar’s tenure. A week into beginning his role, members learned that Azar attended a meeting hosted by the Office of Management and Budget that was limited to three reporters. The discussion had focused on drug pricing proposals, a top concern among the public, but reporters who were not at the briefing had difficulty getting questions answered.

A handful of AHCJ members were also concerned on Thursday when they received two hours’ notice about a press conference about the flu​, noting that only one reporter had asked a question. HHS made the event available online for live stream and for reporters to watch if they missed it.

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