CDC denies language prohibitions amid health groups’ protest

Health agencies to assess chemical exposure near military bases
Ferre' Dollar/CNN

In two separate letters, more than 300 public-health organizations urged Acting Secretary Eric Hargan of the Department of Health and Human Services to ignore a reported restriction on employees’ use of seven specific words as they prepare budget documents for the President.

However, Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Health and Human Services both denied this week that any language restrictions exist.

The Washington Post reported last week that, at a meeting, CDC analysts had been discouraged from using seven words in budget reports: ‘”vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based” and “science-based.”

In a letter Tuesday, the heads of five health organizations — including the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Psychiatric Association — acknowledged Fitzgerald’s statement, but apparently it was not enough.

“While any suggestion made to the nation’s leading public health and prevention agency to limit medical and scientific vocabulary would be concerning, the suggestion that the CDC disregard the importance of science and evidence in public-facing documents is unacceptable,” Tuesday’s letter says.

A similar letter dated Thursday was signed by hundreds of organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Public Health Association.

This letter did not acknowledge either Health and Human Services’ or Fitzgerald’s statements. Instead, the group letter expressed concern.

CDC’s ‘public health mission’

Thursday’s group letter stated that, “as the nation’s premier public health agency, the CDC cannot carry out its mission of improving the health and safety of all Americans when its staff are urged to avoid using basic phrases that are so intrinsic to public health.”

Yet Fitzgerald reassured CDC employees this week that “science is and will remain the foundation of our work.” She also tweeted her comments to the public at large.

“You may be understandably concerned about recent media reports alleging that CDC is banned from using certain words in budget documents. I want to assure you that CDC remains committed to our public health mission as a science- and evidence-based institution,” she wrote in a series of tweets. “CDC has a long-standing history of making public health and budget decisions that are based on the best available science and data and for the benefit of all people — and we will continue to do so.”

Fitzgerald also tweeted a statement from Health and Human Services that cast the Washington Post’s assertion of “banned words” as a “complete mischaracterization of discussions regarding the budget formulation process.”

“HHS will continue to use the best scientific evidence available to improve the health of all Americans. HHS also strongly encourages the use of outcome and evidence data in program evaluations and budget decisions,” the statement reads.

‘Nothing out of the ordinary’

The writers of Thursday’s letter were aware of the statements made by Fitzgerald and by Health and Human Services, said Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association.

“It is important to note that in their artful response, HHS and the CDC never denied that these seven specific words (vulnerable, evidence-based, etc.) were singled out,” Benjamin said, adding that they acknowledge a difference of opinion as to what was said and how. “One has to put this report of language restriction in the context of several other administration actions to change agency communications.” He said this includes “web site language” and prohibiting public presentations by scientists.

Responding to the letters and Benjamin’s comments, a Health and Human Services official who is not authorized to speak publicly on this issue told CNN on Friday that “the meeting and what took place is nothing out of the ordinary.”

“All agencies have a process and policy in place that employees are to follow when communicating to the press or when giving scientific presentations and what not,” he explained. “But that does not prohibit them from ultimately being able to speak to the press or give presentations.

“When a new administration comes into office, they have language in mind that sort of characterizes what they feel may be priorities, and so they offer guidance to people who write the budget as well,” he said. “It’s what happens when a new administration comes into office.”