Sunshine Week may be just one week out of the year, but the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press works every day to protect the right to public information. We have seen firsthand the important role that public information plays in producing more complete and accurate reporting on issues that deeply affect our communities – how taxpayer dollars are spent, if elected officials are acting in the best interests of those they serve, and whether those in government are abusing the power they hold. Continue reading
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.”
This morning’s HHS briefing about the new Community Health Data Initiative, part of the Open Government Initiative, covered a lot of ground, with a number of web application developers showing off what they’ve done with government health data. Among the highlights for me:
Microsoft has launched Bing Health Maps
It’s a little clunky to access now, but we’ll forgive Bing since the application was launched early this morning. Go to http://www.bing.com/maps/explore/ and look for the “Map Apps” button at the bottom of the page. Click on that and, on the next screen, choose Bing Health Maps. From there, you can pick a state and then community health indicators. Those indicators include birth measures, death measures and health risk factors. An overlay on the map shows the results and you can click on specific areas to delve further into the numbers.
Visualizing the data may make it easier to spot some health disparities that might deserve a closer look and it’s an easy way to get numbers on some health measures for an area. I am disappointed that there doesn’t appear to be an option to embed the health maps.
Google Fusion Tables make health data accessible
Not to be outdone, Google demonstrated how its Fusion Tables – “a database service in the cloud” – could be used with HHS data about hospitals. In the example, you can zoom in on a hospital and get stats on whether it is “heart friendly” and “people friendly.”
Tech helps asthma management
Another application gathers data on where and when people are when they suffer asthma symptoms. Asthmapolis showed how its product, the Spiroscout, uses GPS to track the time and geographic location of symptoms. The data can then be displayed and, presumably, patterns can be detected. Asthmapolis produced a video to explain a little more.
Analyze the U.S.
Palantir Technologies announced http://AnalyzeThe.US which uses tools to explore data released by the government as well as datasets compiled by nonprofits and policy centers, in areas that include federal spending, contracting, lobbying, and campaign finance.
And more …
Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced that HHS will release a Health Indicators Warehouse by the end of the year that will have “currently available and new HHS data on national, state, regional, and county health performance – on indicators such as rates of smoking, obesity, diabetes, access to healthy food, utilization of health care services, etc. – in an easy-to-use ‘one stop data shop.'”
According to the HHS press release, there were 16 applications presented at today’s forum. I’m hopeful that HHS will find a better way to present such things before future announcements. I spent much of my time during the webcast trying to find the web sites and applications that were being demonstrated, and thus missing parts of the discussion. Releasing a list of URLs in advance or providing them via Twitter during the webcast would have helped keep my attention on what was being presented.
In the end, the release of more data is always a good thing and making it accessible to as many people as possible is even better. But journalists will probably still want the underlying datasets so they can perform their own detailed analysis of the data.
For more about some of the applications demonstrated, see “Making community health information as useful as weather data” from Alex Howard.
A beta Medicare Dashboard designed to “use inpatient hospital payment and volume information to visualize trends in the use of and costs for certain covered services under original fee-for-service Medicare” is part of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services’ response to the Obama administration’s Open Government Directive.
In a press release, CMS says the dashboard can help users compare hospitals to learn about utilization and costs. The data available now includes inpatient discharges from January 2006 to December 2009.
Also as a result of the directive, CMS will be making available basic Medicare utilization and Medicaid State Plan documents on the Data.gov Web site.
Perhaps of most interest to AHCJ members:
In addition, significant improvements have been made to the user interface and analytical tool to access existing CMS COMPARE data on provider quality (at data.medicare.gov). Along with other HHS agencies, CMS will participate in the new Community Health Data Initiative, which will include state and regional aggregate indicators of Medicare health care costs, quality, prevalence of disease, and utilization of service.
A separate press release says the Department of Health and Human Services will unveil its Open Government Plan in a live webcast at 1:30 p.m. ET on Wednesday. Questions can be sent in advance to email@example.com.
The Data Mine, a project from the Center for Public Integrity and the Sunlight Foundation that highlights inaccessible or poorly presented information from the federal government, invites readers to participate in Sunshine Week by tipping them to government data, records and reports that should be open to the public. They also want to hear about federal information that is available but accompanied by restrictions that make it cumbersome or impractical to use.
Bill would require agencies to post public documents online: NextGov.com reports on the proposed 2010 Public Online Information Act.
Access to public records in Florida could grow – or shrink – if Legislature passes these bills: One bill would require Florida’s “Department of Health to establish an interactive online budget, stipulating it be updated each year and trace the flow of all funds appropriated to DOH in the past 20 years,” according to the Orlando Sentinel.
Comparing state FOIA laws: The Detroit Free Press looks at sunshine laws in Michigan, Florida, Ohio, Illinios, Indiana and Wisconsin.
See more Sunshine Week headlines from around the country.
- AHCJ calls on new administration to improve access to federal experts
- Major journalism groups demand agency end newsgathering constraints
- AHCJ objects to federal agencies’ handling of story embargo
- AHCJ calls for better information from hospital accreditation Web site
- Health journalists cite uneven disclosure of H1N1 deaths across country
- AHCJ’s right-to-know resources