Author Archives: Felice J. Freyer

Felice J. Freyer

About Felice J. Freyer

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

AHCJ objects to FDA’s ‘close-hold embargoes,’ requests explanation

Image by Logan Campbell via flickr.

Image by Logan Campbell via flickr.

AHCJ is protesting the Food and Drug Administration’s recent restrictive practices in handling news embargoes and has asked the agency for clarification of its policies.

In an Oct. 11 letter to Jason Young, the FDA’s acting assistant commissioner for media affairs, AHCJ President Karl Stark raised strong objections to the practice of providing embargoed information on the condition that reporters refrain from seeking outside comment until the embargo lifts. Continue reading

Survey of AHCJ members finds biggest access problems at federal level

Source: AHCJ member survey, 2016

Source: AHCJ member survey, 2016

Health journalists seeking information from government agencies often encounter obstacles, especially at the federal level, according to AHCJ’s recent survey. The biggest roadblocks involve delays, bureaucracy, scripted replies, and barriers to interviews, survey respondents said.

Three-quarters said it is difficult to get the information they need from the federal government, and two-thirds reported difficulty getting adequate responses from state government. Continue reading

How AHCJ engages in sustained push for transparency year round

Sunshine Week logoIn early February, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services advertised a telephone question-and-answer session intended for “non-press associated individuals.” Essentially anyone could listen in – except the members of the media. Crazy, right?

But when a member of the Association of Health Care Journalists asked CMS to change the wording of the February invitation, the agency’s press office declined.

Learning of this, Irene Wielawski, chair of AHCJ’s Right to Know Committee, immediately contacted Mark Weber, a high-ranking public affairs official at HHS with whom the committee speaks regularly. Weber took action, and within days, a new invitation went out specifying that the call was open to all interested “people,” with no restrictions on the media.

A small victory – but a swift one, and an example of how a sustained push for government transparency can make a difference. Continue reading

Media groups decry CDC’s silence on W.Va. spill; agency admits communication missteps

The recent chemical spill in West Virginia, which contaminated the drinking water of 300,000 people, became another occasion when federal agencies shut the door on reporters seeking answers, fueling public anxiety with their silence.

But after complaints from journalism organizations, including AHCJ, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week issued a mea culpa and a pledge “to work to reach that critical balance between accuracy and timely release of information the public expects and needs to protect their health.”

The CDC told West Virginia health officials on Jan. 15 that pregnant women should not drink the water until the chemical, called Crude MCHM, was at “nondetectable levels.” Reporters from the Charleston (W.Va.) Gazette had a lot of questions about this order – but could get no answers from the CDC press office. Continue reading

AHCJ seeks release of health insurance exchange data

AHCJ has called on the federal government to release data about enrollment in the federal health insurance exchange as soon as the numbers are tabulated.

In a letter sent Thursday to Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of health and human services, and Marilyn Tavenner, administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, AHCJ president Karl Stark asks for daily or weekly updates, rather than the monthly updates the administration has planned. 

“This information is critically important, not only for journalists but for professionals involved in ACA-related work and any American who wants to buy health insurance,” Stark wrote. Continue reading

CDC reduces number of media contacts

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently removed its list of media representatives by beat, replacing it with a handful of email addresses and phone numbers, with names only for the media office’s two top officials.

In response to AHCJ’s inquiry, Barbara Reynolds, director of CDC’s division of public affairs, said in an email that the change was an attempt “to improve [CDC’s] media request response times and ensure that it more accurately accounts for the volume of work it is doing.”

Reynolds wrote that the new system was intended to be more efficient. “The beat system could not keep pace with the media demand and changing topics of news importance in the agency and was frustrating for media when beat contacts were out of date,” Reynolds wrote. “We continue to be only a phone call away and respond to routine media inquiries 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. ET, M-F, and continue to respond to urgent and breaking news media requests 24/7.”

The old beat list can still be retrieved here, but Reynolds’ comments indicate that it is probably not up to date. Although many reporters prefer to contact a named individual rather than a generic inbox, this is how CDC has chosen to respond at a time of high media demand on federal agencies.

Health and Human Services officials have advised AHCJ that reporters who are dissatisfied with the response they receive from an agency should contact the top public affairs official at that agency. In the case of CDC, that’s Reynolds, who can be reached at 404-639-0575 or Bsr0@cdc.gov. If you are still unsuccessful, contact Dori Salcido, dori.salcido@hhs.gov, the HHS assistant secretary for public affairs.

Additionally, please let AHCJ’s Right to Know Committee know how this is working out and whether CDC is making good on its promise of efficiency and responsiveness. You can send your observations to me at felice.freyer@cox.net or to RTK Co-Chair Irene Wielawski at imw@cloud9.net.