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.”