Remember when U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price visited Charleston in May for a “listening tour” on opioid addiction? Of course you do. West Virginia made national news when journalist Dan Heyman was arrested after attempting to ask Price a question, about whether domestic violence would count as a pre-existing condition under the GOP plan to replace Obamacare.
I found the description of the event as a “listening tour” a bit strange, because I knew from a previous open records request that state officials had already told GOP leaders supporting the bill, in letters, that it would “negatively affect the ability of West Virginians with mental, behavioral health and substance use disorders to access needed services,” and that the president’s budget would have a “dramatic impact on substance abuse and mental health services.” “Federal funding must be maintained or West Virginia’s health care infrastructure will collapse,” both Governors Jim Justice and Earl Ray Tomblin have said.
So I wanted to know more about who, exactly, thought the tour was a good idea, what the Trump administration had to say when they contacted state officials, and the planning that went into it.
If you’re interested, here are the 155 pages of emails DHHR was required to send me under state law. Some of the highlights include:
Laura Trueman, of HHS, emails the governor’s office, saying Price wants to come on Tuesday, May 9 to “highlight work being done on opioids by the states.” The email also says he wants to perhaps “meet with the Governor and his Advisory Council, and then go see something in the community – perhaps first responders, hospital visit, or a rehab place or drug court.” The governor did not attend.
HHS officials also insisted that press not be able to attend the roundtable discussion (although we were able to attend a four-question “press conference.” Most of my time at that event was spent listening to prepared statements by various officials, not on questions.) According to emails, Butch Antolini, a spokesman for the governor, asked about making the event open to press. Trueman gives reasons why not:
HHS was apparently concerned about “losing control of the message,” which conflicts with its stated goal of a “listening tour.”
They also stated that “Candor might be compromised.” This is confusing to me, because we at the Gazette-Mail regularly speak to most of the roundtable participants about the opioid crisis.
More concerns about press:
Trueman sends suggested language for the invitation to the event. It begins:
Butch Antolini, the governor’s communications director, responds:
And on May 9, the day of the event:
There’s more here, if you’re interested. Seems like there was a lot of confusion leading up to the event, and that Congressman Evan Jenkins, who is running for Senate, was not originally supposed to be standing alongside Conway and Price at the press conference. I’m going to get back to a story I’m working on about how the GOP bill would affect the opioid epidemic killing my friends and neighbors.