HHS Sec. Michael Leavitt Has No Comment on Contraception and Ab-Only Proposals

Scott Swenson

HHS Secretary Michael Leavitt gets credit for being the first Cabinet Secretary to engage policy discussions on his very own blog. But he ducked substantive questions in person today, perhaps he'll reply by blogging.

Today at a session hosted by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, entitled, The Health Blogosphere: What it Means for Policy Debates and Journalism, Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt spoke about his experience being the first Cabinet Secretary to blog. He discussed the impact of new media on policy debates, and the absolute fact that the blogosphere will be important in shaping the coming health care reform debate. He shared some personal writing from his blog.

But he didn’t actually engage the public policy debate by answering a substantive question about health care policy, which I asked;

Mr. Secretary thank you for being here and sharing your thoughts about blogging, I’m hoping you’ll engage a policy question to give us something to blog about. Within the past two weeks, two highly charged issues have surfaced from HHS: a leaked memo redefining some contraceptive devices as abortion; and a waiver of the annual application for Title V abstinence-only programs.

The former will substitute an ideological and political definition of when pregnancy begins for the medical judgment of the American Medical Association and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. The latter will, for the first time, ignore Congress’ reluctance to make abstinence-only programs permanent — they have had 19 short-term extensions, and Speaker Pelosi said last week that with a stronger majority in Congress it will end. This effort potentially ties the hands of the next administration and promises states money that has not been authorized.

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1) Will it be HHS policy that the 98% of Americans who use contraception at some point in their lives are terminating rather than preventing pregnancy?

2) Can you explain why this grant period should be treated differently than the previous 19 short-term extensions for abstinence-only programs?


Very politely, Secretary Leavitt refused to engage in the serious policy questions with a room full of bloggers by saying;

Those are very thoughtful questions. I do not have anything to add to your blog today. Next question.


Since the Secretary does believe in engaging the health care debate on his own blog, if not in person with bloggers as Speaker Pelosi did, perhaps he’ll provide a thoughtful reply on his blog. He may have started drafting it on his Blackberry on the way back to the office, a way he told the audience many of his posts start, others on the treadmill, others in international airports. He does write them himself, and the inherent risks of dealing with issues at the level he must, and writing about them in the blogosphere is without question a high wire act. He deserves credit for making the effort and not turning it into a publicity machine handled by staff.

The policies I asked him about were handled by staff, but ultimately the Secretary must address these hyper-politicized and ideological proposals as the spokesperson for the Department, as he said in his talk. The redefinition of contraception was like a prairie fire on the web, with traffic to Rewire and other sites covering it spiking to two and three times the norm. If Secretary Leavitt engages the conversation he’ll likely see the same spike in traffic and introduce new readers to his courageous endeavor.

The abstinence-only funding proposal resonates more with policy watchers. The American people have already largely rejected abstinence-only policies to the point where they have become laughable, as seen in this You Tube video, not likely what Secretary Leavitt has in mind with a partnership between HHS and You Tube that he mentioned is coming this fall. The fact that abstinence-only policies risk teen health by preventing reality-based education makes them no laughing matter, and something many Americans are already blogging about.

The Panel

Panelists that followed the Secretary discussed what it means to be blogging about health care, and how the coming reform debate will be impacted. Much of the discussion was about audience, the blurring of the lines between mainstream journalism and blogging, and the niche nature of health care blogs.

One topic discussed was that of the Frost family, spokespeople for the S-Chip debate, and what E. J. Dionne of the Washington Post called the "ugly underbelly of the blogosphere" when conservative blogger Michelle Malkin invaded the family’s privacy. She reported second-hand information picked up from their neighbors. It was later discovered to have been part of a coordinated right-wing smear operation and Malkin herself complained about people invading her privacy.

Ezra Klein, Associate Editor of The American Prospect, called her "vituperous" and clearly indicated that she’d crossed the lines. Michael Cannon, Director of Health Policy Studies for the CATO Institute, countered by asking if we’d feel better about it if the information were reported by a mainstream journalist, or if a left-wing blogger had asked Leona Helmsley’s neighbors questions about her tax payments. Something about comparing average Americans trying to cover health care costs for their children and Leona Helmsley strikes me as odd, but highlights the ways in which the left and the right differ in their views of the world.

Tom Rosenstiel, Director for the Project on Excellence in Journalism, suggested that the advantage of the blogosphere is that it is conversational, commenting on what the mainstream media is reporting. But Klein noted that many blogs are now regularly breaking news (to our knowledge no one in mainstream media has yet reported the HHS ab-only funding story) and Rosenstiel noted that reporters often have to learn issues in very short periods of time, giving bloggers with expertise an advantage at times.

In these and many other ways, the panelists seemed to agree that the lines between mainstream media and new media blogs is blurring, as more journalists turn to blogging themselves and mainstream media tries to find its role in a dramatically changing world.

John McDonough, Senior Health Reform Advisor to Sen. Edward Kennedy and a veteran of the Massachussetts health care reform process, noted that the blog he contributed to during the Massachussetts debate, Health Care for All, facilitated important conversations and allowed for immediate feedback during the debates and implementation. Jacob Goldstein of the Wall Street Journal Health Blog talked about the moves into new media by the venerable WSJ.

It was an interesting discussion, but the most interesting part is yet to come. Having agreed that reporting on the blogosphere, where perspective is out in the open, and mainstream media where we all know everything is fair and balanced, as Klein noted, "is no longer a place where much tension exists."

So let’s engage the substantive policy questions.

Secretary Leavitt? Let’s blog!

We eagerly await an answer to the substantive policy questions above on your blog.


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