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OpEdNews Op Eds    H1'ed 2/12/18

Free Press? Don't Need No Stinkin' Free Press

Author 500271
Message Roy M. Poses M.D.
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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 call s, 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 Amendmen t. 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.

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Clinical Associate Professor of Medicine at Brown University, co-founder Health Care Renewal, and President of FIRM - the Foundation for Integrity and Responsibility in Medicine, a not-for-profit organization (NGO) designed to raise (more...)

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