Tag Archives: health and human services

Forum on Medicaid expansion, previously closed to press, now open

For the past few days, AHCJ has been working with the Obama administration to resolve questions about whether reporters can dial in to an open door forum tomorrow about the Medicaid expansion.

Originally, the administration’s notice said that the event was open to stakeholders and other interested parties, but was closed to the press. That runs counter to the administration’s policy about such events. HHS and CMS have now confirmed to us that reporters can indeed call in to listen to the forum (details are below).

Note that this is not a press conference and press questions will not be taken, but it is a good opportunity to hear from officials and to hear from stakeholders who ask questions, provide comments etc. If you want to follow up, you should contact the CMS or HHS press offices afterward with questions. Here is the information about the forum:

Low-Income Health Access Open Door Forum

WHAT:  Affordable Care Act Implementation Update for Clinicians, Hospitals and other Healthcare Providers
TOPIC:  Medicaid Expansion
DATE:  Sept. 13 at 2 p.m. ET
DIAL IN:  1-888-455-2963  Passcode:  2954962

AHCJ and our Right to Know Committee take reporters’ access to open meetings seriously. If you encounter any difficulty, please contact AHCJ Board President Charles Ornstein or our Right to Know co-chairs Felice Freyer and Irene Wielawski know immediately.

After AHCJ protest, HHS stipulates public meetings are open to media

Can you imagine holding public meetings open to everyone – except reporters who want to cover them? That’s exactly what the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services did last year. But, after complaints from the Association of Health Care Journalists, HHS has agreed to make it a policy that public meetings are open to the media.

“We are hopeful this will not happen again,” said Felice Freyer, chair of AHCJ’s Right to Know Committee. “But to make sure, we will need your help.”

Here’s what happened:

In November, HHS held a series of “listening sessions” in 10 cities to gather input on an important aspect of the Affordable Care Act. These meetings were publicized among thousands of invited “stakeholders,” and anyone who heard by word of mouth could also attend.

But apparently no media advisories went out and, worse, reporters who happened to learn about the meetings were barred from attending.  The meetings were not transcribed or recorded.

AHCJ learned about these meetings from Laura Newman, an independent medical journalist and blogger at Patient POV, who asked to attend and was told she could not. Alarmed that the government would bar coverage of public meetings, AHCJ wrote to every member working in the cities where the listening sessions were held (Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Dallas, New York, Kansas City, Atlanta, Seattle, Denver and San Francisco) to find out what they knew.  Among the 26 who replied, only two knew about the meetings before they took place – Newman and another member who had not been interested in attending.

Over a period of weeks, AHCJ worked with the HHS media office to find out what had happened and to express our concerns. “By excluding the news media, HHS was essentially shutting the door on the majority of people who weren’t on the mailing list or connected with someone who was,” Freyer said. “Most people don’t go to such events, but rely on the news media to tell them what happened.”

The meetings sought input on the definition of “essential benefits,” the minimum that would be covered by plans sold on health insurance exchanges. This was a key aspect of carrying out the health care law; in the end, HHS decided to leave that question to the states.

We asked for the list of “stakeholders” who attended and any notes from the meetings, but HHS was unable to provide them. In a phone conversation last month with Freyer and AHCJ president Charles Ornstein, HHS media officials acknowledged that such meetings should be open to the media.  At our request, they agreed to add this sentence to their media guidelines: “Meetings that are open to the public are, by definition, open to the media.”

Please watch out for any violations of this principle, and let us know about them.

“This incident illustrates how members can make a big difference by alerting us to access problems,” Ornstein said. “We’re grateful to Laura Newman for bringing this to our attention, and to all those who responded to our letter. The work of the Right to Know Committee is among AHCJ’s most important endeavors – but none of it can happen without our members’ vigilance and willingness to step forward with information.”

HHS releases guidelines for handling media requests

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has adopted a set of guidelines on how it will provide information to the media. The guidelines reaffirm that employees’ contacts with the media must be cleared by a public affairs office, but call on media officials to respond promptly and accurately.

AHCJ had no part in writing the guidelines but had pushed for a media policy that would promote consistency among all HHS agencies and allow reporters to know the ground rules.

Although the guidelines are in force, Richard Sorian, HHS assistant secretary for public affairs, called them a “living document” and said he welcomed feedback.

AHCJ members are encouraged to read the six-page document and share their thoughts with Felice Freyer, Right to Know Committee chair at felice.freyer@cox.net.hhs-media-guidelines

Among the key features are:

  • An emphasis on timely response and respect for reporters’ deadlines
  • Putting bloggers on equal footing with mainstream journalists
  • Encouraging, but not requiring, HHS employees to consent to interviews
  • Requiring that employees arrange such interviews through media offices
  • Allowing employees who speak at conferences or other public events to answer reporters’ questions at that time
  • Specifying that “media interviews should be on-the-record and attributable to the person speaking to the media representative, unless an alternate attribution arrangement is mutually agreed upon in advance.”

Although employees are required to arrange their contacts with the media through the public affairs offices, they do not need to seek approval for scientific, technical or policy articles or commentaries written for peer-reviewed journals.

The guidelines also extend to all HHS agencies the policy on embargoes recently adopted by the Food and Drug Administration. That policy permits reporters to share embargoed materials with sources, provided the sources promise to honor the embargo.

The guidelines do not state whether a media representative must or should listen in on interviews with HHS employees. They also do not address whether reporters from large and small media outlets should be treated equally.

Sorian released the new guidelines Wednesday, after the second quarterly phone conversation between AHCJ and HHS public affairs officers. Freyer and AHCJ President Charles Ornstein spoke with Sorian and others as part of a continuing effort to improve HHS responsiveness to reporters’ requests for information.

Asked whether reporters would ever be allowed to contact and interview federal employees on their own, Sorian said that HHS has no plans to change the policy requiring interview requests to be cleared by a public affairs office. But he emphasized that public affairs officers are supposed to be helpful and should not “shape the interview.” If a reporter feels that press officer has been heavy handed, “we definitely want to hear about that,” he said. Sorian can be reached at Richard.Sorian@hhs.gov.

MedPage Today team gets 13 minutes with Sebelius

The folks over a MedPage Today only had 13 minutes to interview HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on video, but they fit in discussion of yet another short-term fix for Medicare’s sustainable growth rate and cost control, electronic medical records, malpractice reform and, of course, health care reform.

MedPage News editor (and AHCJ member) Joyce Frieden came into the interview armed with questions on charged topics such as the aforementioned growth rate, pay-to-delay and reliance on pharmaceutical industry money. Frieden was joined by Washington correspondent Emily Walker and vice president/executive editor Peggy Peck joined the interview from Ohio by phone.

Reporter’s dumpster diving led to HIPAA deal

With a $1 million settlement, HHS and Rite Aid have closed the book on a HIPAA privacy case that began with a journalist’s investigative reporting in 2006. In a nut shell, Rite Aid employees across the country were tossing prescriptions and pill bottles out without taking measures to secure the sensitive information they held.

They were exposed by Bob Segall, Jim Hall and Bill Ditton of WTHR-Indianapolis. For the story, Segall eventually checked dumpsters in 12 cities nationwide and found unsecured information in all of them. Segall told the tale of how he broke the story, and how other reporters could do the same, in this article for AHCJ members.

For those unfamiliar with the case’s background, NPR’s April Fulton can get you up to speed. CVS settled with HHS last year, and NPR’s Fulton reports that Walgreens will be next.