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Critics: Feds Hiding Health Data

GENERIC internet web health and human services
CBS/60 Minutes II's Jarrett Murphy checks out complaints that information on abortion and condoms were taken off the Web sites of two federal agencies for political reasons.
Critics have accused two federal health agencies of restricting public access to information on the Web, in a dispute that reflects worries about the Bush administration's openness to public inquiry.

In October, a group of House members sent a lengthy letter to Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Tommy Thompson raising concerns that "scientific information that doesn't fit the Administration's political agenda is being suppressed."

The complaints reflect a larger concern by some that the Bush administration holds information too close to its vest, whether it be a list of the companies that advised the president's energy task force or an accounting of who has been arrested as part of post-Sept. 11 investigations.

At the same time, the dispute highlights the growing importance of the Web to the relationship between the public and the government. The Bush administration is the first in history to inherit a substantial government Web presence. For public health agencies charged with providing accurate information, keeping all that data updated poses a substantial challenge.

"Flow of information is always a challenge. It doesn't matter how that information flows – with Internet and electronic transactions it just flows faster," says HHS spokesman Bill Pierce.

The Oct. 21 letter, signed by Congressman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and 11 other members of Congress, took issue with the removal of three items from two HHS agency Web sites.

The National Cancer Institute (NCI) removed a fact sheet on whether there was any link between abortion and breast cancer. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) dropped a section called "Programs that Work," which provided tips on helping at-risk kids, and information on how well latex condoms protect against sexually transmitted diseases.

The letter also raised concerns about the ideological bent of Bush appointees to science committees. Waxman's office has not yet received a response to the letter.

"This administration's actions are a significant shift from administrations in the past," Waxman said in a written response to questions from "The public needs to have access to scientifically accurate and unbiased health information. This administration is removing important health information from the public domain simply based on ideology."

Pierce said Waxman was "trying to find conspiracy theories that just do not exist."

"If there's a conspiracy, it's a conspiracy to be as accurate as possible," Pierce said.

The breast cancer fact sheet dealt with the long-debated question of whether having an abortion increases a woman's risk of breast cancer. Waxman's letter said NCI removed a fact sheet that debunked the "popular myth" that abortions cause an increased risk of cancer.

NCI spokesperson Dorie Hightower said the fact sheet was pulled down in July after several members of Congress requested a review, a move that she acknowledged was unusual.

Another spokesperson, Mike Miller, said NCI's roughly 170 fact sheets are reviewed on a regular basis as new research emerges. An interim fact sheet was posted on the site Tuesday, and NCI will hold a workshop early next year to discuss the issue.

"To my knowledge this obviously has been an issue that has engendered passion on both sides," Miller said. Indeed, NCI contends the issue has been studied at least 30 times since 1957, with some finding abortion posed no risk at all while others detected a substantial increase in risk.

The CDC's "Programs That Work" section concerned ways for to protect children and adolescents from HIV/AIDS, teen pregnancy and tobacco. Waxman's letter says the program was created at the behest of schools.

It was removed, the CDC site says, because the agency is "considering a new process that is more responsive to changing needs and concerns of state and local education and health agencies and community organizations."

Rhonda Smith, a CDC spokesperson, could not answer questions about "Programs that Work."

Waxman contended that the removal of a fact sheet on the effectiveness of Latex condoms, "strongly suggest ed) an ideological, rather than a scientific, agenda at work." The Bush administration has favored programs that promote abstinence as opposed to protected sex.

Smith said that the condoms fact sheet was being updated with information from new research and should be up soon.

Although she pointed out that "the Web site is just routinely updated," she could not recall another area where a fact sheet was currently down pending review.

Asked if the administration's policy outlook could shape the materials produced by CDC, Smith said: " I think that everything that affects the work that we do is taken into consideration. Everybody who has an interest in making sure the public health interest is looked after will have some input into what is good."

The dispute between the NCI and CDC and members of Congress has not been the only rough patch for the Bush administration's approach to running government Web sites.

Just last week, a consortium including the American Geographers Association and the American Education Research Association wrote to Education Secretary Rod Paige protesting a policy, outlined in an internal memo in May, of removing information from the Department of Education Web site if it "runs counter to current Administration priorities."

The Department of Education now says it does not intend to conduct the widespread deletion of files suggested in its May 31 memo, which spelled out the reasons and procedure for cleaning up the department's 50,000 pages of Web material.

"The latest on that is that we're not going to be deleting any significant files, we're going to be archiving them and they are going to still be accessible on the Web site," said Education spokesman Jim Bradshaw. Bradshaw indicated the May memo was written while the department's Internet policy was still evolving.