Health panel secrecy boosts newsletters

March 25, 1993|By John Fairhall | John Fairhall,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- The secrecy surrounding the president' health care reform task force has produced a bonanza for specialty publications that -- for prices of up to $600 -- promise to tell subscribers what the government won't.

Even though the Clinton administration announced yesterday that it will lift some of the secrecy and release the names of more than 500 people who work for the task force, that won't hurt these publications. They will continue trying to ferret out what's happening in the all-important task force staff meetings, which the administration has no intention of opening to the public.

Mostly newsletters, they maintain that their reporters have the inside dope on the task force, including access to task force documents that health industry officials would gladly pay big money to see.

The administration's announcement doesn't actually mean that much to people who have been following health reform closely. While the White House plans to issue mainly just a list of names, a number of publications have gone further, disclosing the backgrounds of staff members and what they are doing for the task force.

When the private Bureau of National Affairs rushed its Health Care Policy Report to market this month, it offered an "exclusive" directory of task force staff, and their functions, to encourage people to pay $595 for a year's subscription to the weekly.

Other publications have done likewise.

"We have definitely tried to run names of the people, especially BTC leaders of the working groups," said Craig Havighurst, editor of Health Legislation and Regulation, a $545-a-year weekly. "Once you know who these people are, their backgrounds tell you a lot about the direction the administration is going."

While several newsletters have sprung up to cover health reform, some existing health publications are trying to reposition themselves. Health Policy Week changed its name to Health Care Reform Week and has enjoyed increased sales (at $395 a year), says its publisher, Richard Hadley.

"It's the big issue -- it's the 500-pound gorilla of health care," Mr. Hadley says of the task force's work.

The secrecy surrounding the task force has generated considerable criticism and one lawsuit, rebuffed by a federal judge, which sought to open its meetings. Yesterday, in the latest demonstration of its annoyance, the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal ran a list of more than 500 names of task force staff members virtually identical to one published last week in the Congressional Record.

For the White House, that apparently was the last straw.

"Frankly, we got tired of seeing so many inaccurate lists published in so many normally reputable places," complained Robert Boorstin, a White House spokesman, explaining why the administration would release a list today or tomorrow.

Although the administration was under some pressure from the congressional General Accounting Office to disclose information about staff members, "we were planning to" release the names anyway, Mr. Boorstin said.

Last Thursday, Rep. Gerald B. Solomon, a Republican from New York, included in the Congressional Record a list of 538 names, which an aide said were obtained from a White House source.

Administration officials say secrecy is needed to give the task force an opportunity to produce a plan without lobbyists and reporters bothering the participants.

"A lot of people on the working groups left behind families, small children, and good-paying jobs with normal hours in order to devote themselves to this task, and we didn't feel it was right to subject them to the assaults of the alligator-shoe crowd," Mr. Boorstin said, referring to lobbyists.

Even before yesterday's announcement, the administration had been trying to avert more criticism by appearing more forthcoming.

On Monday, the task force leadership -- Hillary Rodham Clinton, Cabinet members and some White House advisers -- will hold its first formal meeting, in public, at George Washington University. But the work groups, in which staff members are laying the real foundation for health reform, remain closed.

Administration officials have provided a sketchy profile of the task force staff. Most are government employees, drawn from agencies like the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Office of Management and Budget. Many others are congressional aides.

The rest of the staff consists of consultants. Some are drawn from academia, including a couple of professors from the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health in Baltimore. There are also 60 physicians, as well as nurses and other health professionals, administration officials say.

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