Mind and Body

Beyond tit for tat reporting

Do reporters need to be better versed about health care issues when it comes to the 2018 election season?

Photo by Richard Asinof

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, who has been accused by Republican candidate Robert Flanders as having "blood on his hands."

By Richard Asinof
Posted 7/16/18
The charge by Robert Flanders, Republican candidate for Senate, that Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse has “blood on his hands” does not appear to hold up under scrutiny.
How can health care reporters do a better job of covering the politics of efforts to combat the opioid epidemic? What are the standards that political reporters should employ when confronting partisan charges against candidates? How many reporters and editors make use of the data available on Prevent Overdose Rhode Island as a resource? How have the work of health equity zones in Rhode Island communities changed the approach of developing community-based solutions to combat the opioid epidemic? Would The Providence Journal ever reject an op-ed by a political candidate because the charges made against an opponent are unfounded?
One of the phrases that the late Jim Gillen would also repeat at candidate forums and gatherings is the need for the recovery community to become a constituency of consequence, to make its voice heard as voters. What kinds of political forums should be considered by the recovery community as part of the 2018 election season?

PART TWO

PROVIDENCE – The other surprise awaiting ConvergenceRI upon his return from California was a story by Ted Nesi for WPRI, published on July 10, reporting on the hyperbolic claims that Republican Senate candidate Robert Flanders made at a news conference, alleging that incumbent Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse had “blood on his hands” as a result of his sponsorship of a controversial law that allegedly restricted the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency’s ability to pursue those companies that were responsible for apparent reckless sales of prescription painkillers.

While criticism of the law had been reported on by “60 Minutes” and by The Washington Post, what got left out of the charges by Flanders was the prominent role that Republican Rep. Tom Marino from Pennsylvania played as what The Washington Post described as “the chief advocate of the Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act, which required the government to meet a higher bar before taking certain enforcement actions.”

Marino had been President Donald Trump’s nominee in 2017 to become the nation’s next drug czar, but withdrew his nomination after the story about his role in pushing the legislation became public.

The DEA had fought against the bill for years, according to The Post’s reporting, but finally relented after a leadership change at the agency under the Trump administration. The new law makes it virtually impossible for the DEA to freeze suspicious narcotic shipments from the companies, according to legal analysis cited by The Post.

To claim that Whitehouse had “blood on his hands” while ignoring the role that Marino played, with apparent support from the Trump administration, who had nominated him to become the U.S. drug czar, appears to be a distortion of the facts for partisan purposes, in ConvergenceRI’s opinion.

The story by Nesi, one of Rhode Island’s top political reporters, published counter statements by Whitehouse’s staff, including the fact that Whitehouse had been the principal sponsor of the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, a bipartisan law that, as Nesi reported, the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America, an advocacy group, called “the most comprehensive effort undertaken to address the opioid epidemic.”

Beyond tit for tat
The tit-for-tat reporting, Flanders charges, Whitehouse responds, then included further details about what was termed “Flanders’ new plan to tackle opioids” – which appeared to be problematic, in ConvergenceRI’s opinion, because there did not appear to be very much “new” about it.

According to ConvergenceRI’s analysis, much of what Flanders appears to be suggesting may have already been incorporated into the current strategic plan developed by the Governor’s Task Force on Overdose Prevention and Intervention, which has served as a model for many other states in ramping up efforts to combat the opioid epidemic.

Further, in covering the opioid epidemic for the last eight years, first for The Providence Business News and then with ConvergenceRI, Flanders seemed to have been, in the military vernacular, AWOL from much of the ongoing public conversation, as best as ConvergenceRI can determine.

To give Flanders an opportunity to respond, ConvergenceRI sent the following questions by email to Richard Kirby, campaign manager for the Flanders campaign, on Thursday, July 13. No response was received.

The questions asked but not answered
I read with interest Ted Nesi’s coverage of your campaign and your charge at a recent news conference that Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse had “blood on his hands.”

As a reporter who has covered the opioid epidemic for nearly a decade, first with The Providence Business News and now with ConvergenceRI, I had a number of questions:

1. Who are the principal policy advisors for the Flanders campaign on the opioid epidemic?

2. Has Flanders ever attended the monthly public meetings of the Governor’s Task Force on Overdose Prevention and Intervention? If not, why not?

3. Has Flanders ever read and reviewed the strategic plan for the Governor’s Task Force on Overdose Prevention? If not, why not? If yes, what are the policies, interventions and initiatives that Flanders agrees with, or disagrees with?

The above question is important, because it appears that many of the Flanders’ policy recommendations are already ongoing initiatives of the Task Force, including: increased access to naloxone, both through community and police and firefighters; greater participation and collaboration by pharmacists in the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program; identification of “hot spots” through alerts sent to police and providers; increasing training for medical professionals; expanded insurance coverage; and a greater emphasis on recovery and treatment options instead of incarceration.

Rather than a “new” program as depicted by Flanders, the policy recommendations seem to echo the comprehensive work already underway as part of the Task Force’s efforts.

4. The Rhode Island Attorney General recently filed civil suit in state court against certain opioid manufacturers and distributors over their alleged campaign of unfairly, deceptively and fraudulently marketing and promoting opioids in Rhode Island. Does Flanders agree with such a legal strategy of holding the companies accountable?

5. Has Flanders ever met with members of the recovery community to learn more about their concerns? If not, why not? If so, with whom?

6.  Has Flanders ever attended a Rally for Recovery event held every September in Providence? If not, why not?

7. Has Flanders ever gone out on patrol with the West Warwick police and its behavior health specialist when they are making house calls? If not, why not?

8. When the current U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams visited the Anchor Recovery Community Center in Pawtucket on Jan. 26, 2018, it was said that the opposite of addiction was not sobriety, but connectedness, and Adams concurred. Does Flanders agree with that statement: the opposite of addiction was not sobriety, but connectedness?


The larger context
All is fair in love, war and partisan politics, as the adage goes. Flanders has every right to make charges against Whitehouse, as part of the process, regardless of whether those charges are accurate or not.

Reporters, however, have an obligation to hold candidates’ feet to the fire when it comes to the accuracy of such claims – and to provide perhaps more insightful reporting about the context for such stories.

Should Flanders be calling out Republican Rep. Tom Marino and the Trump administration rather than Sen. Whitehouse?

What are the specific areas in Flanders “new” plan that have already been implemented as part of the Rhode Island’s strategy to combat the opioid epidemic?

What specific interactions has Flanders had with the recovery community in Rhode Island?

And, who are Flanders’ policy advisors on addressing the opioid epidemic?

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