Responding to Obama’s calls for openness, the FDA created a Transparency Task Force a few months after his inauguration. The health-care association joined ten other journalism organizations and more than two dozen individual journalists to send a letter to the task force demanding that it end the requirements that journalists obtain permission to conduct an interview, and that public information officers listen to interviews. Six months later, representatives of the association met with Jenny Backus, who became the top press secretary at HHS, to voice some of the same concerns. Backus defended the department’s policies requiring interview permissions and minders, but expressed a desire to work with the press. “She gave us her line about, ‘We really want to help reporters, and we believe in transparency,’ ” Freyer says. “She even told me that HHS believed the regional media were important, and that it wasn’t just talking to The Washington Post and The New York Times. But she also promised us a list of all the media contacts in HHS, and then never delivered. She talked about having us come to meet with the department’s pubic information officer at this convention in September. She said she’d look into it, and then never did. So she never really followed up on most of what she promised.”
Such neglect has real-world consequences. Around the same time, Freyer was working on a story for The Providence Journal, where she’s been the medical reporter since 1989. Ten percent of the obstetrician-gynecologists in Rhode Island had admitted to inserting a type of intrauterine device (iud), a form of birth control, into hundreds of women, which had not been approved by the FDA for use in the United States and which they’d obtained illegally at discount prices from foreign sources. The FDA launched an investigation, about which Freyer had questions. Unsure which press officer to approach, she filled out the “Timely Response E-mail Form” on the agency’s website. Several hours passed with no response, so she called and spoke with a press officer. He suggested that Freyer e-mail her questions to him, which she did. Nothing. When she called again two days later, the press officer said he was waiting for a response from his superiors. He suggested that she resubmit her questions for a third time. She did, to no effect. Several more days passed and she sent yet another e-mail asking if she could expect answers, and if not, why. “At this point, all we can say is that the FDA is continuing to look into these cases,” the press officer replied.
Freyer recounted the saga in an online article for the AHCJ:
I published my story, stating that the FDA had declined to answer any questions. Four days later, the FDA posted a ‘consumer update’ on its website referring to the Rhode Island controversy and warning consumers against iuds. . . . It turned out the fda’s position was not the ‘No comment’ I received. The agency had quite a lot to say on the matter, but had declined to say it in the newspaper serving the hundreds of women throughout Rhode Island who were distressed and frightened by the IUD incident. They deserved better from the agency that was supposed to be protecting them.
Freyer e-mailed the press officer with whom she’d corresponded as well as the fda’s chief press officer to ask what had happened. When neither replied, she e-mailed Backus at HHS, who finally got the FDA to apologize for its unresponsiveness and promise to do better. Backus was replaced shortly thereafter, however. As Freyer put it, the association had to “start all over again,” and transparency problems have continued under Backus’s successor, Richard Sorian.