HHS Moves to Centralize Agency Communication Departments
HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson has started a "major consolidation" of the communication, legislative and public affairs offices within HHS in an attempt to "improve the quality" of the health-related information that is disseminated to the public, the Washington Post reports. There are more than 50 communications departments under the umbrella of HHS, as most of the agencies within the department manage their own communications functions. HHS had "floated" a plan to consolidate communications offices "months ago" but then tabled the idea. But after recently being "stung by criticism" during the anthrax attacks for providing "muddled and contradictory" information that sometimes "conflict[ed]" with information from the CDC, HHS last week "began a major push to get the system in place." The new system, which is being implemented with the help of the Office of Management and Budget and is detailed in 2003 budget papers, will place all communications staff "under the direct control" of the Office of the Secretary. It is not yet certain how communications employees will be impacted by the change, but some public affairs employees may be moved to other jobs within their agencies. HHS spokesperson Kevin Keane said, "The goal is somewhat obvious: to create a more cohesive and efficient structure. Let's figure out what we need to communicate and let's do it together."
Critics of the plan say the move will "impose unprecedented controls" over the release of information from the agency to the press and to congressional staff, and they say it is an effort to manage the administration's "message" and "enhance the appearance of a unified department." The Post reports that the restructuring will likely "narrow the range of available sources" for reporters, who will now need a "green light" from HHS before speaking with experts at the FDA, NIH and other agencies. An unnamed communications director at NIH said, "The worst thing is that the people who will be controlling the information flow are going to be spin doctors instead of medical doctors. You have to suspect that this is being done when there is no commissioner at FDA and no director at NIH so [the secretary's office] can get permanent control" (Weiss, Washington Post, 1/14).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.