The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services Accused Of Blackballing Journalist

In a report that points to possible censorship and an attack on free speech, The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services has been accused of blackballing a reporter covering health care in D.C. for eight years after he refused to delete three contested sentences from a story.

The reporter, the Washington bureau chief for Modern Healthcare, Virgil Dickson, had reported that the recent resignation of Brian Neale, an official overseeing Medicaid, came amid “some sort of disagreement” between administrator Seema Verma and Neale. The sources also claimed Neale had objections to the workload. The allegation was substantiated by multiple industry insider sources that Dickson found credible and reliable.

Administrator Seema Verma paints an entirely different story on Twitter, noting that Brian Neale is a “dear friend.”

After publication, the journalist received an email from a communications director contracted by CMS, Brett O’Donnell, a Republican strategist and a well-known Republican debate coach who worked for Mitt Romney in 2012. O’Donnell said Dickson’s article made “false speculation” about any disagreement or workload problems.

The journalist stood by his sources but added a statement from Brian Neale, who denied a disagreement had occurred. That wasn’t enough for O’Donnell, who then wrote to Dickson’s editor.

“Short of fully correcting the piece we will not be able to include your outlet in further press calls with CMS,” reportedly stated O’Donnell in an email.

The editor stood by his journalist, noting that the sources had been credible and that they had balanced the story with Neal’s statement.

A week later, Dickson was taking part in a CMS press call, when he reported being dropped from the call.

“[…] His phone went mute during a CMS press call and a woman’s voice told him he was not allowed to participate,” wrote Felice J. Freyer for the Association of Health Care Journalists.

A CMS agency spokesman responded to questions from the journalist about the incident, saying “No reporters have been banned by CMS.”

If that is the case, Dickson has not since heard if he will have access to future press calls at the time of this writing. The president of the AHCJ also firmly stands by the journalist.

“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.”

The news of the alleged blackballing of a journalist is part of a larger shift in how the CMS approaches press conferences, according to Association of Health Care Journalists:

“In contrast to previous administrations, CMS officials do not hold in-person press conferences. They have also taken to inviting select reporters to telephone briefings, and excluding others without explanation,” stated Freyer.

Of note, the man who threated to blackball the journalist has an interesting past.

In 2015, O’Donnell plead guilty to lying to House ethics investigators about the extent of campaign work he had done while being paid from lawmaker’s office accounts.

“The 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,” wrote Paul Singer for USA Today.

It looks like O’Donnell should be the last person to question anyone’s ethics – especially those of an experienced journalist.

It’s great to see the Association of Health Care Journalists stand up to what they see as bullying and an attack on free speech. In this ongoing climate created by Trump, the rights of journalists are under attack as they face the chaos of the Trump administration.

In the case of journalist Virgil Dickson, he’ll be required to report accurately on the coming attacks on Medicaid while facing the threat of restricted access.

Featured image: Screenshot via YouTube