Monday, February 05, 2018

Free Press? Don't Need No Stinkin' Free Press - Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) Tries to Intimidate Modern Healthcare Journalist

Remember the good ol' days, when most US challenges to free speech or the free press in health care came from aggrieved corporate or academic managers?  Now government health agencies have gotten into the act, never mind First Amendment guarantees of free speech and a free press.

CMS Attempted to Intimidate a Journalist for Modern Healthcare

This story first appeared on the blog of the Association of Health Care Journalists, and has now been summarized in only one media outlet, The Hill.  Per Felice Freyer, the Vice President of the AHCJ, Virgil Dickson, a reporter for Modern Healthcare, wrote a

Jan. 23 story about the abrupt resignation of Brian Neale, an official who oversaw Medicaid and helped move it in more conservative direction.

After providing statements from [director of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) Seema] Verma and Neale, Dickson quoted 'industry insiders' who said the departure was prompted by 'some sort of disagreement between Verma and Neale that erupted in the past few days.' He also mentioned that one source said Neale had been concerned about the workload. 

That rather bland report seemed to displease the management of CMS.  Ms Freyer noted,

After the article appeared, Dickson received an email from Brett O’Donnell, a communications contractor working for CMS. O’Donnell called reports of a disagreement or workload problems 'false speculation' and said it was 'irresponsible' to mention them without more details.

Dickson stood his ground, noting that the information came from multiple, reliable sources. But he agreed to speak with Neale for clarification, and subsequently added Neale’s denial of a disagreement.

That was not enough for Mr O'Donnell:

The next day, O’Donnell wrote to Dickson’s editor, Matthew Weinstock, asserting that the article was inaccurate and demanding that the references to workload and the disagreement be excised. O’Donnell’s email also stated: 'Short of fully correcting the piece we will not be able to include your outlet in further press calls with CMS.'

The next week,

 Virgil Dickson, Washington bureau chief for Modern Healthcare — believed the agency was making good on its threat on Thursday when, he said, his phone went mute during a CMS press call and a woman’s voice told him he was not allowed to participate. An editor later confirmed with CMS officials that he had been banned from press calls, Dickson said.
The Context of the Intimidation

CMS is, of course, a government agency, and so must heed the First Amendment of the US Constitution, part of the Bill of Rights,

Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press

Nonetheless, this appeared to be a clear attempt to intimidate a reporter trying to uphold the tradition and guaranteed Constitutional right of freedom of the press.  As Ms Freyer wrote,

the attempt to alter a story by threatening to cut off access raises deep concerns among journalists.

'Administrator Verma seems to think she can bury inconvenient facts by threatening reporters with blacklisting,' said Ivan Oransky, M.D., president of the Association of Health Care Journalists, the world’s largest organization of reporters, editors, and producers covering health care.

'That tactic won’t work – truth will out,' Oransky said. 'But the very act of trying to stifle a press report is a frightening assault on the First Amendment. AHCJ intends to vigorously protest this bullying.'


Aurora Aguilar, editor-in-chief of Modern Healthcare, told AHCJ that the incident is unlike anything she has seen in more than 20 years in journalism.

'I don’t think I’ve ever come across a situation where I was asked to remove something from a story in a way that felt like censorship,' she said.

Making this all the more extraordinary, consider some more background.  Modern Healthcare is hardly some revolutionary pamphlet, and Virgil Dickson was not aspiring to be another Thomas Paine.  As Ms Freyer wrote,

Aguilar said Dickson is known as a thorough and fair reporter. Modern Healthcare, whose subscribers are chiefly executives from health care systems and insurance companies, publishes articles about CMS once or twice a day.  

As an aside, Mr O'Donnell, who seemed to be acting as Seema Verma's bully, is not a CMS, or government employee.

O’Donnell, the consultant who threatened to blackball Modern Healthcare, is not a member of the media affairs offices for CMS or for HHS.

He was only described as a "contractor."  He also is a contractor with a checkered past.

He is a Republican strategist who has helped GOP candidates in their political campaigns. In 2015,O’Donnell pleaded guilty to lying to U.S. House ethics investigators about how much campaign work he did with money that came from office accounts rather campaign accounts.

The USA Today story linked above further stated that his guilty plea

is the first time anyone has been charged with a federal crime for lying to the House Office of Congressional Ethics, which was set up in 2008 to vet allegations against lawmakers and staff and recommend further action to the House Ethics Committee.

The charges against him included,

during his interview with OCE investigators, O'Donnell 'knowingly and intentionally made several false statements to OCE in an effort to minimize and conceal the true nature and scope of his role as it related to [Broun's] campaigns.' For example, he told OCE investigators, 'I never felt like any of my campaign work was expected as part of my duties.'

Summary and Discussion

It appears that  respected reporter for a well-known US health care business publication was barred from participation in CMS conference calls after some rather mild reporting on his part offended CMS leadership.  There seemed to be an attempt to intimidate the reporter by a federal "contractor" paid by CMS, a contractor who was a criminal, that is, who had pleaded guilty to a federal crime of lying to the Conressional Ethics office. 

 How far have we descended.

On Health Care Renewal we have been writing about attempts to limit free speech or free discussion in the press in the health care sphere for more than 10 years.  Through 2015, nearly every case we discussed involved large academic institutions, hospital systems, or for-profit health care corporations trying to limit criticism of their products, actions, leadership, etc.

I do not recall any serious cases involving US government agencies.  After all, the US has a long tradition of freedom of speech and the press, enshrined in our constitution.

However, in 2016, we started viewing with alarm the implications of candidate then President Donald Trump's apparent attempts to intimidate the press and citizens who exercise their rights of free speech (e.g., look here).  Now we have a US government health agency slipping into the role of thought police, and using the hired services of a federal criminal to intimidate a journalist.

The anechoic effect is now being shrouded in much deeper shadows.  We may need a new Thomas Paine.

ADDENDUM 13 February, 2018 - This post was republished in OpEd News on February 12, 2018.

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