Category Archives: Health policy

With Roe likely in its final days, experts say reporters should sharpen focus on abortion as a health issue

Photo by Erica TricaricoSophie Novack (on the left) and Crystal S. Berry-Roberts, M.D. (on the right)

Pregnancy is a medical condition and abortion is an intervention for it, so journalists writing about the topic should take the same approach they would when writing about cancer, diabetes, and other conditions and treatments: focus on mortality risks, patients’ rights to care and bodily autonomy.

Reporters should also step up their game to explain what the medical community has known for decades: that abortion is a safe health care procedure.

These were among the topics covered by women’s reproductive health experts who participated in a round table discussion moderated by Brenda Goodman of CNN Health, about abortion on Saturday, April 30, at Health Journalism 2022 in Austin. The conversation took place two days before what appeared to be a leak of the Supreme Court’s opinion in Roe v. Wade was published by Politico. The opinion would overturn abortion protection under Roe v. Wade.


Check out the full transcript of the round table discussion.

The speakers at the “Women’s reproductive health in a post-Roe world” round table included Crystal S. Berry-Roberts, M.D., an obstetrician and gynecologist in Austin; Lisa Harris, M.D. Ph.D., an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Michigan; Sonja Miller, interim managing director for Whole Woman’s Health Alliance; and Sophie Novack, an independent journalist who has reported on the implications of Texas laws restricting abortions. Continue reading

FDA Commissioner Califf sounds the alarm on health misinformation

Photo by Paola RodriguezRobert Califf, M.D., M.A.C.C., speaking with an attendee at Health Journalism 2022.

Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Robert Califf, M.D., M.A.C.C., isn’t easy to rattle.

During a Q&A on Friday, April 29, at Health Journalism 2022 in Austin, he told journalists that after “surviving a harrowing confirmation process” he’s feeling confident about the FDA’s ability to tackle all of the challenges before it, including food safety, children’s COVID vaccines, teen vaping, among others.

Though the agency has been hit with criticism from lawmakers, industry and the public, he’s taking it in stride.

“I’m 70 years old. I’m relatively impervious to critique. What are they going to do to me now?” he said during the session moderated by AHCJ’s core topic leader on patient safety Kerry Dooley Young.

But the issue that keeps him up at night, he said, is the proliferation of false and misleading health information, particularly online — and the distrust in institutions, data and expertise that it has wrought.

“I believe that misinformation is now our leading cause of death,” he said, naming ongoing COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy, the number of people taking Ivermectin and the prevalence of vaping as examples of the problem. “Historically, the FDA has been relatively quiet and puts out definitive information through guidance or labels or regulatory actions … that would be transmitted to consumers and patients through trusted intermediaries. But the world has changed at this point.”

All this, he argued, had fueled the drop in life expectancy in the U.S. compared to other wealthy nations, and he urged reporters to avoid clickbait, lean into fact checking, make sure the headline matches the copy and take other steps to responsibly convey news about COVID-19 and other pressing health concerns.

“People are distracted and misled by the medical information Tower of Babel,” he said. “But journalists like yourselves play an important role here and your work has a tremendous impact on public trust.”

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Public records: Dig deep (but curb your expectations)

Lexi Churchill of ProPublica (at the podium) and Sandhya Kambhampati of the Los Angeles Times (to the right) talking to attendees during the FOIA panel at Health Journalism 2022. (Photo courtesy of Katherine Gilyard)

Rhode Island freelance writer Philip Eil, a veteran of an extended public records battle, has some stark advice for any journalist determined to wrestle important documents from the government: “Expect nothing, and expect it to take forever.”

That sounds discouraging. But, as Eil told colleagues on Thursday, April 29 at Health Journalism 2022 during the “Making FOIA work for you: How to get the public records you want” panel, low expectations serve two purposes. They help you avoid becoming emotionally involved. And they make your hard-won victories even sweeter.

Eil should know: His very first bid for public records turned into a fight that went all the way to a federal appeals court as he sought the documents he needed to report on the notorious “pill mill” physician whose opioid prescriptions ravaged an Ohio town. “I was unwilling,” he said, “to take no for an answer.”

Eil’s fellow panelists offered their own tips about mastering the art of public-record requests: Know the law (and cite it!), don’t always rely on email, look for alternative ways to get elusive information, and reach out for legal reinforcements when needed.

Adam Marshall, a senior staff attorney with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, advised journalists to not only understand public records law but to remind government agencies of it in your public record requests. “There’s actually empirical research that shows that if you state a statutory provision, you will actually get a better response from the government,” he said.

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Becerra needs to open up to the press

Letter to Xavier Becerra

AHCJ is calling on Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra to make himself available for questioning by reporters.

In a letter to Becerra sent Friday, the association urges regular, open press briefings similar to those held by his predecessor.

In his seven months in office, the leader of one of the largest federal departments has kept a low profile, even though the agencies he oversees, which include the CDC, the FDA, the NIH, and Medicare, make decisions affecting the lives of virtually all Americans.

“It’s time for Secretary Becerra to come out of hiding,” said AHCJ President Felice J. Freyer, who signed the letter along with fellow board members Sabriya Rice and Joyce Frieden. “The public deserves to hear from the cabinet member responsible for the programs and policies that affect our health.”

Although Becerra holds press conferences on limited topics when he travels, they are not live-streamed or open to reporters outside of the regions he visits. And he has yet to hold an open-ended press conference, at which reporters can ask him about a variety of topics.

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Tracking the Senate confirmation process for next FDA chief

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The Senate’s vetting of a proposed Food and Drug Administration (FDA) commissioner may provide an opportunity for reporters to dig into some of the most pressing concerns in U.S. health policy, including the opioid epidemic and the standards used to clear new medical treatments for the market.

President Joe Biden on Nov. 12 announced his plan to nominate Robert Califf as FDA commissioner. Califf served in this same post in the final months of the Obama administration, from February 2016 to January 2017 (Learn everything you need to know about Califf in this blog post.) The next step will be a hearing on the nomination before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee. The committee expects to receive a formal nomination for Califf this week and will schedule a hearing “as soon as possible,” a HELP aide told AHCJ.

Califf likely will face questions during his next round of Senate vetting on some of the same topics he faced on the first round, including FDA’s decisions on food safety and the pace at which it approves generic drugs. Senators will likely ask him to weigh in on controversies that have emerged since, particularly the FDA’s approval of Biogen’s Aduhelm drug for Alzheimer’s disease. (The AHCJ has covered this issue in June and July blogs.)

If confirmed, Califf would also lead the FDA during the next big push in Congress to change how the agency handles drug approvals in general.

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