January 26, 2017

News Alert: During News Blackout it’s Business as Usual at CMS

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It’s business as usual at the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) this week in the wake of a White House order issued Wednesday creating a temporary ban on some federal agencies communicating directly with the public through news releases and social media.

On Wednesday morning, it was revealed that the Trump administration told the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), and the National Park Service to cease and desist any form of communication with the public and the media as it pertained to their research.

On the same day, however, Politico quoted an HHS official who said "contrary to erroneous media reports, HHS and its agencies continue to communicate fully about its work through all of its regular communication channels with the public, the media, and other relevant audiences."

Indeed, Ronald Hirsch, MD, vice president of R1 Physician Advisory Services, told RACmonitor that he had not experienced any evidence of the blackout, nor was he aware of any cancellations of CMS outreach activities, such as the agency’s open door telephone forums. Hirsch went on to report that he even received a response from a CMS official within 10 minutes of sending a query.

“It’s business as usual at CMS,” former CMS official Stanley Sokolove told RACmonitor. “There is the usual hold on regulatory implementation until the new CMS administrator gets her feet wet, as is the case with any new president taking office and setting a global agenda.” 

Sokolove said that in talking with his former colleagues, he saw no sign of a morale issue at the department, adding that “morale was as usual during a changeover, similar to the change of administrations of former presidents Bush and Obama.”

Moreover, Sokolove does not see any major changes to the provider-based clinic program.

“CMS policy people are handling provider inquiries, but any major regulatory implementations are on hold for now,” he added.

Would President Trump’s blackout be considered unprecedented? No, according to former CMS official Stanley Nachimson, who was a federal employee at CMS during the during the presidential administrations of Carter, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton.

“It’s not abnormal for a new administration to exert some control over the staff responses and websites at federal government departments,” Nachimson said. “It is reasonable to have the new (agency) websites reflect the policies of the new administration (and) to have consistency of the message coming out of the federal government.”

“While I was at CMS, we were required to get clearance to speak to the press, and were provided with guidance as to what we could and could not discuss by the CMS press office,” Nachimson added. “The concern is mostly around high-level policy statements rather than day-to-day operations. Staff is able to answer factual questions about operations and status.” 

Nonetheless, in response to the silencing of an official National Park Service Twitter account in the Badlands of South Dakota that was tweeting out neutral scientific facts about climate change, a group of “alternative” unofficial Twitter accounts sprang up with the intention of continuing to inform the public without fear of censorship or repercussion from the government.

“Although by definition unverifiable, these accounts claim to be run by scientists and employees of these government departments, members of a resistance tweeting in secret,” said Stephanie Thompson, an independent social media communication specialist. “One of the first ‘alt’ Twitter accounts to be created was @AltHHS, defining itself as ‘unofficial and unaffiliated resistance account by concerned scientists for humanity.’”

Thompson said its first tweet, posted at about 10:50 a.m. EST on Wednesday, said, “Don’t let the gov’t tell you what you can and can’t say, or who you can or can’t say it to. Solidarity in science, not oppressive regimes.” 

“Right now the new administration is getting control because they don’t federal officials speaking on issues that are contrary to the administration,” Nachimson said. “They are hoping to get consistency and have the government agencies speak with one voice.”

Chuck Buck

Chuck Buck is the publisher of RACmonitor and is the program host and executive producer of Monitor Monday.

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