Verma participates in first of promised series of ’roundtables’ with reporters

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.

Seema Verma

Seema Verma, the administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, held her first on-the-record, in-person meeting with reporters in Washington, D.C., on Thursday as the agency pledged to make her more accessible, through both smaller and larger gatherings.

Verma spoke with 10 reporters for one hour, beginning the conversation by discussing the sustainability of Medicare and then answering reporters’ questions on Medicaid expansion, value-based care, and the Affordable Care Act.

The meeting came after the Association of Health Care Journalists, in a Feb. 12 letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, urged top health officials to hold frequent, open press conferences. Azar’s predecessor, Tom Price, held no such meetings during his nine-month tenure at the agency. Azar took the helm Jan. 29 and Verma has held her position for just more than a year.

“As you know, today was a long time coming, right? I understand that,” Johnathan Monroe, CMS media relations director, told reporters after the roundtable. “But we’re here. And I think that we are getting to the point where you will have more access to the administrator and more access to officials here.”

CMS has said that Thursday’s meeting was the first in a series of “roundtables” that will rotate reporters from different outlets.

A few reporters excluded from Thursday’s roundtable raised concerns about the format of the gatherings to AHCJ’s D.C. chapter and to CMS. They worried about being excluded from future roundtables and questioned whether CMS officials were continuing practices, denounced by AHCJ, in which they would only communicate with a handful of reporters, as the agency did throughout 2017.

But Monroe said the roundtables were intended to allow more in-depth conversations, and that he is looking for a fair way to give every interested reporter a chance to participate in the future.

The roundtables won’t be used to make major announcements, Monroe said. Instead, new policies will be announced on phone calls open to all.

Still, some reporters pointed out that answers to questions raised at roundtables might prove newsworthy.

To address this, Monroe said he would consider recording the sessions and finding a way to make the recordings publicly available. Meanwhile, AHCJ’s D.C. chapter distributed a recording of Thursday’s session to chapter members and, in the future, AHCJ will make recordings of the roundtables available via HealthJournalism.org.

“AHCJ welcomes this important step toward greater openness at CMS,” said Ivan Oransky, M.D., president of AHCJ’s board of directors. “We understand the frustrations of those who didn’t get invited to the first meeting. We also appreciate the challenges CMS faces in accommodating the more than 200 health care reporters working in Washington.

“AHCJ is happy to provide advice to CMS as it works on organizing roundtables, with the goal of making sure everyone gets a fair shot. And we’ll be watching closely to see if promises are kept.”

Reporters at Thursday’s meeting were using laptops, tweeting, and recording the conversation.

Those present were: Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar of the Associated Press, Rachana Pradhan of Politico, Misty Williams of CQ Roll Call, Dylan Scott of Vox, Stephanie Armour of the Wall Street Journal, Amy Goldstein of the Washington Post, Ariel Cohen of Inside Health Policy, Petter Sullivan of The Hill, Joyce Frieden of MedPage Today, and Kimberly Leonard of the Washington Examiner.

Monroe said he selected those reporters because he had worked with them a lot and had an idea of what they had been working on.

Monroe invited input from journalists “on figuring out how to cycle in other reporters so that it’s fair. I think there is a misunderstanding that there is some secret method that we take to decide who is on what.”

During the next month, Monroe said, he hopes to sit down with a large group of reporters to go through any issues people are having, whether receiving press releases or responses to queries.

The format of Thursday’s meeting was smaller than the “pen and pads” with reporters that Azar has been holding at the agency headquarters. Since his first on Feb. 20 he has held two others, the most recent of which included Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, and Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Roughly 35 reporters have participated, recording the conversation and using laptops. CMS has said that Verma will hold similar gatherings, at times alongside Azar.

“Moving forward in the future we also will be looking at doing bigger ‘pen and pads’ with more people, even perhaps joining the secretary at a pen and pad,” Monroe said. “But we also want to keep this [roundtable] format.”

At the roundtable, the AP’s Alonso-Zaldivar recommended that Verma consider meeting with reporters on the record after the larger HHS budget is released, a practice he said had been discontinued under the Obama administration. He noted the Trump administration also has not yet held a larger HHS briefing on the president’s budget.

Verma said Thursday’s roundtable was only the beginning of more regular interactions.

“I hope to have more of these,” she said. “This is hopefully the beginning … I think this year you’re going to see a lot more coming out from us, and so I want to make sure we’re keeping that dialogue open. We’ll try to do a better job with that.”

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