AHCJ secretary and co-chair of Right to Know Committee
In early May, reporters started noticing that a handy resource had been rendered nearly useless. The directory that once provided the email addresses and phone numbers of 90,000 employees of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services now contains only names and titles, no contact information.
Apparently first publicized in a blog post by Bruce Quinn, M.D., Ph.D., and later noted by Politico, the move was denounced as a step away from transparency.
In a phone conversation, an HHS spokesperson said the directory will be back online “in some form or fashion.” The spokesperson could not say what specific contact details would be restored, or provide a timeline.
The database was taken down due to security concerns, officials said.
When HHS employees began working from home during the pandemic, some staff added their personal contact information, the spokesperson told AHCJ. The national response to COVID-19 became a hot-button political issue, and pandemic-related decisions that some people “vehemently disagree with” resulted in several HHS staff receiving verbal and physical threats, including at least one incident.
Health and Human Services secretary Xavier Becerra met with reporters on Friday following months of criticism over a perceived lack of transparency.
In a March 18 news conference that lasted just over an hour, Becerra highlighted some of HHS’s accomplishments. He also took questions about COVID-19, the opioid epidemic, gender-affirming care for transgender youth, and more, from invited reporters.
Along with the secretary, reporters also were able to ask questions of HHS Deputy Secretary Andrea Palm as well as Norris Cochran, HHS Acting Assistant Secretary for Financial Resources.
The meeting came as Becerra marked his first full year in office, and journalists welcomed the event. In November, AHCJ took Becerra to task for failing to hold open-ended press conferences that would allow reporters to question him on a variety of issues in the public’s right to know.
AHCJ also has been working to improve the relationship between the Biden administration and health-specific outlets. The Friday press briefing was preceded on Thursday by a “pen-and-pad” briefing for a small number of reporters from the health trade press. That event, which lasted about 40 minutes, allowed each reporter to ask several questions and also covered a wide range of subjects.
HHS opening up to reporters is a welcome change, and we hope Becerra will make these briefings a regular part of his schedule. And we’d like to hear comments from members who attended either event, both positive and negative. Your input can help the Right to Know committee with its mission. Please email Sabriya or Joyce with your thoughts; we look forward to hearing from you!
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.
If you’re having problems getting information from a federal health agency, don’t give up: You might have recourse within the government.
The new assistant secretary for public affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services, Sarah Lovenheim, has recently reaffirmed an appeals process that AHCJ negotiated several years ago.
It works like this: If you can’t get what you need at the agency level, appeal to the HHS deputy secretary who oversees media affairs for that agency. (Details on how to do this are below.)
In a conversation with Sabriya Rice, vice chair of the Right to Know Committee, and me, Lovenheim agreed that reporters should get in touch with the deputy secretaries if they need help. Continue reading
AHCJ has called on President Biden to honor Independence Day by turning his attention to improving government transparency, “a cornerstone of democracy.”
In a letter sent Tuesday, AHCJ President Ivan Oransky points out that “health care reporters, especially, must have access to complete and accurate facts because what we write influences life-and-death choices that people make.”
The statement praises Biden’s cordial relationship with the media and open coronavirus briefings earlier this year but adds: “Our members tell us that getting information from the federal government remains one of their biggest challenges.” Continue reading