Reporters struggle to learn the facts after only three get briefing on drug price proposals

Sarah Karlin-Smith

About Sarah Karlin-Smith

Sarah Karlin-Smith (@SarahKarlin) is a health care reporter for Politico, specializing in covering the policy and politics that affect the drug industry, particularly drug pricing regulations. She has spent the past seven years covering health care with a focus on the Food and Drug Administration.

Alex Azar

When newly installed Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar held one of his first meetings with the media on Feb. 8, only three reporters were invited. They got a sneak peek at drug price provisions contained in President Trump’s budget, while other reporters had to wait days to get questions answered.

The topic – tackling the cost of pharmaceuticals – was one of Azar’s signature issues, but he chose to discuss it only with the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, and the Daily Caller.

As news of the private meeting seeped out, reporters seeking to learn more about Azar’s proposals had mixed results. Some received no response. A few got limited answers from HHS. (I got a little information but it wasn’t complete and it wasn’t easy to get.) Others were told to wait until the White House budget was released on Feb. 12 – four days after the private briefing.

Under their agreement with HHS, reporters who were at the Azar briefing published their stories after 9 p.m. on Feb. 8. Their reports had some conflicting information about the drug pricing proposals, raising questions for media members not in attendance about what, precisely, HHS proposed. The government’s lack of engagement left us – and the public – with unclear information.

In previous years HHS has held press briefings open to all media to discuss the president’s proposed budget. Those briefings, which usually take place after the formal White House budget release, were not held this year. In the past, there have been leaks of bits and pieces of the budget, but not a small selective briefing like the one on Feb. 8.

When I saw the stories that night and the next morning, I asked the HHS press office and the White House for more information and clarification. I was referred to the Office of Management and Budget. But I got no response to multiple requests to OMB. My colleague Brianna Ehley received an uninformative email from an OMB spokesman on Feb. 8 that actually included a smiley face.

“No one has the whole budget,” the email said. “It will be released to everybody on Monday. Small sections were given to A small handful of reporters with an embargo of 9 PMtonight. There is always next year.:-)”

I went back to HHS on Friday, Feb. 9, but officials declined again to give me all the information provided to the select reporters the previous day. HHS did agree to answer some questions related to the briefing, which I formulated based on those published reports. But I couldn’t ask all the questions I would have asked if I’d had access to all the information.

Ike Swetlitz of Stat told me he experienced similar treatment on Feb. 9. Like me, Swetlitz noted conflicting information reported by those who were at the briefing.

HHS’s Ryan Murphy declined to provide any materials from the briefing, but agreed to answer specific questions. Swetlitz sent those questions at 10:14 a.m. Friday morning. Murphy answered about three hours later, but some responses simply reiterated Swetlitz would get that information in Monday’s budget. Swetlitz promptly replied with follow-up questions, but did not receive answers until 7 p.m. that evening. His Stat colleague Erin Mershon received no response from OMB.

Kimberly Leonard at the Washington Examiner received no response from her request to HHS for information on the briefing.

Asked about these reporters’ experiences a few days later, Mark Weber of HHS media affairs said his office received more than 100 inquiries about the budget and provided all the information it had.

“We have been overwhelmingly responsive to inquiries around the budget,” he said. “It’s a very big government. We can only control HHS here…

“It was a budget with many components unlike what we’ve seen in the past,” Weber added. “Our materials are still being developed. It’s a moving target for all of us.”

Felice J. Freyer, AHCJ vice president and chair of its Right to Know Committee, said the decision to release information to a tiny group of reporters – a practice AHCJ has been vigorously protesting – created needless confusion and frustration around a critical issue.

“The many Americans forced to choose between paying for medications and paying for rent have a right to understand how the president plans to help them,” Freyer said. “I hope Secretary Azar will work for open communication about his department’s work, which is so often of urgent concern to the public.”

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