Tag Archives: foi

Officials, reporters offer conflicting advice on getting public documents

Pia Christensen

About Pia Christensen

Pia Christensen (@AHCJ_Pia) is the managing editor/online services for AHCJ. She manages the content and development of healthjournalism.org, coordinates AHCJ's social media efforts and edits and manages production of association guides, programs and newsletters.

By Michelle Rupe Eubanks
For AHCJ

lilian-peake

Lillian Peake, M.D., M.P.H.

The fight by journalists to obtain public documents isn’t likely to get any easier, according to the four panelists who led the discussion “Right to know: Getting information from government agencies” as part of Health Journalism 2011.

Peter Ashkenaz, director of communications for the FDA Office of Regulatory Affairs, said his best advice for reporters looking to get these documents is to develop a relationship with the press officers at federal and state agencies.

“That means being friendly over the phone,” he said. “The worst thing that happens is to get a call from reporter who immediately starts demanding anything – information or data or anything like that.”

Even with kindness, Ashkenaz was clear that immediate answers weren’t always possible. In fact, at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, or CMS, the organization for which he used to work, the backlog is at 6,000 unanswered Freedom of Information requests.

“And that’s down from where it used to be,” he said.

Another of the panelists, Lisa Chedekel, said she has never made a request for documents in the form of an FOI as it “means the process gets locked into paper and lawyers.” As a reporter at The Hartford (Conn.) Courant, she wrote a three-part investigation on a nursing home chain that prompted state reform and led to the owner of the chain being jailed. She is now with the Connecticut Health I-Team.

In response to Ashkenaz’s request that reporters “be friendly” when making their requests, Chedekel said, “I hate, as reporters, that personalities matter. It shouldn’t matter if you’re nice or crabby when you call CMS.”

Instead, she offered three tips to journalists: “You’ve got to schmooze, negotiate and stand your ground. If you don’t know how to schmooze, ask your friends. It doesn’t mean you’re not strong about asking your question. It’s still your demand. You’ve got to be human and nice, but that alone might not get you the information you’re after.”

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has developed a Web-based tool, the Open Government Guide on their site, rcfp.org, that’s designed to help reporters to compare the open meetings laws and open records acts from state to state.

Panelist Lucy A. Dalglish, the executive director of the Reporters Committee explained the site, but she was clear, too, that nothing can speed the process of making a request for public documents for virtually any agency.

“You have to be prepared to wait,” she said. “The backlogs are incredible. Some agencies are better than others, but prepare to wait.”

So how do reporters deal with public officials on whom they depend for this information?

Building the relationship might be the only method, if the goal is to get the documents, especially on deadline, according to Lillian Peake, M.D., M.P.H., the director of the Thomas Jefferson District for the Virginia Department of Health.

“I do think a relationship is important, but not because I feel reporters need to be nice to me,” she said. “What’s nice to know is that, after you’ve spent time with a reporter, the information will be reported accurately. If you work with a reporter who does their homework and will report it accurately, I feel more comfortable going in. I never try to withhold information, but I hope it comes out right. We’re working toward the same goal, after all, and that’s information that will benefit the public.”

Michelle Eubanks reports on health care for the TimesDaily newspaper in Florence, Ala.

Survey: Only half of federal agencies have better FOI procedures

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism.

A report from the Knight Open Government Survey found that, despite some progress, federal agencies are only halfway there when it comes to delivering on the president’s day-one promise to improve FOIA procedures and openness across the board.

There is some cause for optimism there, as last year that number was about 14 percent. For the curious, Knight also provided a full PDF of how the 90 different agencies in the survey stacked up.

But before I highlight a few health-related entries, I can’t resist pointing out the survey’s methodology section, which will help explain how the results are organized.

The 2011 Knight Open Government Survey team filed FOIA requests with the 90 federal agencies that have chief FOIA officers, asking for copies of concrete changes in their FOIA regulations, manuals, training materials, or processing guidance as a result of the “Day One” Obama memorandum, and the March 2010 White House memorandum from then-Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and White House Counsel Bob Bauer. The Emanuel-Bauer memo told agencies to 1) update all FOIA material, and 2) assess whether FOIA resources were adequate.

The key takeaway then is that this is a measure of administrative regulation, and not one focused on responsiveness to actual FOIA requests beyond the one used to create each data point. With that in mind, here’s how our friends at health-related agencies stack up.

Concrete action on two steps

  • DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES
  • OCCUPATIONAL SAFETY & HEALTH REVIEW COMM.
  • DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS

Concrete action on one step

  • OFFICE OF NATIONAL DRUG CONTROL POLICY
  • DEFENSE NUCLEAR FACILITIES SAFETY BOARD
  • FEDERAL MINE SAFETY & HEALTH REVIEW COMM.
  • NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION

No final response to FOIA request

  • COUNCIL ON ENVIRONMENTAL QUALITY
  • PUBLIC HEALTH SERVICE

No acknowledgement of FOIA request

  • CHEMICAL SAFETY & HAZARD INVESTIGATION BRD.

Freedom of Information Audits and Government Transparency from Knight Foundation on Vimeo.

FOI blog to follow throughout the year

Pia Christensen

About Pia Christensen

Pia Christensen (@AHCJ_Pia) is the managing editor/online services for AHCJ. She manages the content and development of healthjournalism.org, coordinates AHCJ's social media efforts and edits and manages production of association guides, programs and newsletters.

Long after Sunshine Week has passed us by we recommend keeping an eye on the Art of Access blog (RSS feed). sunshine-week1

Created by Charles Davis and David Cuillier as a companion to the book of the same name, it’s a regularly updated source of rock-solid news and analysis. Davis, a professor at the Missouri School of Journalism  (where AHCJ is based), is the former* executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition. University of Arizona professor Cuillier is the chairman of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Freedom of Information Committee.

*An earlier version of this post referred to Davis as the executive director of NFOIC.  Ken Bunting has held that position since July 1, 2010. Our apologies for the mistake.

Canadians fight for disclosure of medical treatment

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism.

It took eight years, a whistleblower and intervention from a state commissioner to uncover a fatal medical error in a Newfoundland hospital, one committed by a doctor with an (undisclosed) record of such actions. As Canadian broadcaster CTV reports, Canada’s free access to health care doesn’t translate to free access to information.

Here’s my summary of the story’s key events, as I understand them:

  1. A woman in Newfoundland dies soon after her ER doctor misdiagnosed a blood clot in her lung and gave her treatment that a colleague said would have been equivalent to a “lethal injection.”
  2. The victim’s family doesn’t know that anything was out of the ordinary until six years later, when the colleague contacted the family directly to explain what he believed to be a mistake.
  3. The family approaches the hospital for information, and gets a few treatment records, but is denied access to records from an internal investigation of the incident.
  4. Using the province’s FOI laws, the family again pushes for the investigation information. Their request is denied.
  5. Finally, “the family appealed to the province’s Information Commissioner, who ordered Eastern Health to hand over the records.”
  6. A year later, the records were disclosed – but key EKG information was not. Thus, the family’s fight for disclosure continues unabated.

VA officials seize reporter’s audio recording

Pia Christensen

About Pia Christensen

Pia Christensen (@AHCJ_Pia) is the managing editor/online services for AHCJ. She manages the content and development of healthjournalism.org, coordinates AHCJ's social media efforts and edits and manages production of association guides, programs and newsletters.

Mark Segraves of WTOP-FM reports that the memory card from reporter David Schultz’ audio recorder was confiscated by a communications specialist with the US Department of Veterans Affairs while he was interviewing a veteran about “the poor treatment he was receiving at the hands of the V.A.”

Schultz, who is with public radio station WAMU, was covering a public event at the V.A. hospital in Washington, D.C., when the incident happened. Segraves reports that four armed security guards and two other V.A. employees were also involved.

Barbara Cochran, president of RTNDA, comments on the incident:

“The government may not lawfully seize audio or videotape at a scene of news gathering,” she says. “It’s a form of prior restraint.”

Schultz was trying to talk to a veteran with a terminal illness who says he is receiving less-than-adequate care.

Update

Federal agency still holds reporter’s equipment

Sunshine Week: Online health data varies by state

Pia Christensen

About Pia Christensen

Pia Christensen (@AHCJ_Pia) is the managing editor/online services for AHCJ. She manages the content and development of healthjournalism.org, coordinates AHCJ's social media efforts and edits and manages production of association guides, programs and newsletters.

The Sunshine Week 2009 Survey of State Government Information Online found that while more and more government records are being posted online, some of the most important information is being left offline. And in some cases governments are charging taxpayers to access records that they already paid for, such as death certificates.

Sunshine Week

Sunshine Week 2009:
March 15-21

Sunshine Week is a national initiative to open a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information. Participants include print, broadcast and online news media, civic groups, libraries, nonprofits, schools and others interested in the public’s right to know.

Teams of surveyors scanned government Web sites in every U.S. state to look for 20 different kinds of public records.

The survey (PDF) included nursing home inspection reports, hospital inspection reports and death certificates. It found that nursing home inspection reports are available online in 29 states, hospital inspection reports are available online in 17 states and death certificates are available online in five states.

The report says that “Death certificates are apparently a revenue source for many states, as they charge relatives and “legitimately” interested parties for copies of the records, or farm out the work to a third-party service such as VitalChek. Some states provide historical access online to older death certificates, mostly prior to 1960, although there generally is a fee for hard copies.”

Other health-related highlights in the report:

In Oklahoma, hospital inspection reports are said to be “confidential by statute” and would not be disclosed publicly unless there was a case involving a licensing question or revocation/suspension of a license.

Louisiana: “We have a problem with the legality of it,” a Louisiana Department of Transportation official told the survey reporter who called the office after failing to find bridge inspection reports online. Calls to other Louisiana agencies after finding neither hospital or nursing home inspections, nor environmental citations online yielded otherwise unlinked URLs for information.

Maryland: Nursing home information got high marks for facilitating online search and for allowing users to “compare data in a variety of ways.”

Minnesota: The state’s Department of Human Services says it expects corrections orders and licensing sanctions, not currently posted, to be online “in the near future.”

California: Because the state of California is so large, surveyors looked at whether individual departments and agencies posted their audits and personal financial disclosure forms, including audits from the Department of Health Care Services. They found that the data is not clearly linked from the department’s home page, though it is free to view and download. The most recent audit reports online where from 2007.

Department of Health and Human Services

University of Missouri graduate students reviewed the Web site of the Department of Health and Human Services and reported on what documents are available in electronic reading rooms. The students noted that the HHS Web site is difficult to navigate because it is comprised of so many divisions that “vary in content, organization and utility.”

They found multiple problems with many of the HHS administrative manuals and other documents, including documents that were locked because someone else was viewing them and documents that were not clear about when they were created or modified.