Former Mitchell legislator, teacher, and debate coach turned reporter Mel Olson joins the ranks of South Dakota journalists running into the Noem Administration’s stone wall that has made getting basic information and simple answers from state government workers anywhere in South Dakota nearly impossible.
Filling in for KMIT/KOOL Radio news director Bill Lurken, Olson set out to do a gentle informative report on the Department of Health public health nurses working in Davison County:
I wanted to know the basics; hours of operation, how many public health nurses were on staff, did they serve counties other than Davison (like the Veterans’ Services people do) and what basic services do public health nurses provide. Are there income eligibility requirements to avail oneself of the assistance of a public health nurse? For example, do public health nurses give inoculations? If so, what kind (flu, covid, pneumonia etc.) and at what cost – if any? [Mel Olson, “Mel’s Musings—Mel Olson, Investigative Reporter,” KMIT/KOOL Radio, 2023.09.05]
I would say the local public health nurses office treated Olson like he had the plague, but if he’d walked in with some dreaded communicable disease, they probably would have treated him better and more promptly:
I went in person to the offices in the County Building on north Main Street. I told them who I was, who I represented and what I wanted to do. The personnel there were nice, professional and tight lipped. I was offered a brochure. I told them that I wanted to do a news story and a brochure wouldn’t cut it. I would need a professional and their answers might spark follow up questions. They, very politely, informed me they were not allowed to talk to the media. All questions had to go through Pierre and “scripted” answers were to be sent back. Those answers could not be deviated from, nor would follow up questions be allowed. The person I talked to said she would put me in touch with her local supervisor.
In a day or two the local supervisor called me. I explained again what I wanted. It was to be an informative, “feel good”, basic story on the public health nurses and what they go generally. I told the supervisor that I was a former South Dakota legislator and that I had served at one time on the State Senate Health Committee as well as worked on health legislation in the legislature and didn’t want anything that encroached on or actually violated HIPAA. HIPAA is the acronym for the federal law regarding patient privacy and confidentiality. The supervisor told me the same thing the local individual had said in person. The local supervisor then said she would forward my request and questions on to Pierre.
In a subsequent phone call with the same supervisor, she told me that someone from Pierre would call me that afternoon (a Wednesday) and answer all of my basic questions that the local people knew the answer to but could not answer because of the gag rule (my words – not the local health people) that they were under from Pierre. No phone call [Olson, 2023.09.05].
Keep in mind, Olson made clear he wasn’t digging for dirt. He wasn’t asking questions about misappropriation of state funds or medical malpractice or nurses providing massage therapy sessions to visiting business executives GOED is trying to recruit. Olson was offering local Department of Health employees the chance to publicize the helpful services their office provides the community. Smart agencies jump at the chance to get such free publicity, which increases public awareness and use of the valuable services they offer and builds the political support they need to secure funding during the Legislative Session. The Department of Health lists “Exhibit transparency and accountability” as one of its six guiding principles, and reporter Olson was offering them a free shot at exhibiting such transparency and accountability, but the local officials refused.
Then Olson’s request reached Pierre. The state’s stonewalling got absurd:
I did receive an email from a Ms. Kafka from the South Dakota Department of Health offering cooperation if I indicated what I wanted to know. So, yet again, I responded – this time via email – the same thing I had told the Davison County personnel in person once and then twice over the phone. I got back yet another email from Ms. Kafka, the gist of which was – if only I would tell them what I wanted to know they would be able to (at some future date) set up something that might accommodate me [Olson, 2023.09.05].
Five contacts with three different state workers, and not one provided Olson with a single answer for his feel-good story. In an email to DOH spokesperson Tia Kafka, Olson laid out the sequence of stonewalling he’d received from the DOH:
I find your last name so appropriate because I feel I’m in a story by your distant ancestor, Franz Kafka.
I indicated to personnel in the Mitchell office face-to-face the kind of “feel good, inform the public of basic services” story I wanted to do. They said they were prohibited from answering basic questions like hours of operation, counties served, criteria for eligibility for service and a thumbnail sketch of services provided. I said I understood the HIPAA regulations and didn’t want anything that would impinge on those laws. I wanted a “Joe Friday, Dragnet” interview – just the facts Ma’am. That in person exchange – very pleasant and professional – led to my second conversation with local personnel.
The second conversation was by phone. I reiterated what I wanted to know – basics, public information “it’s in the brochure” kind of thing (and I was offered a brochure). I told her that if I just reported on what was in the brochure it was more of an advertisement or “promo” as we call it in the radio business. I needed a live professional to express the information for airing.
She communicated with the main office in Pierre, perhaps even you personally, passing along what information I was interested in. She told me someone from the department would call Wednesday afternoon for an on-air interview on the topics I had laid out (hours of operation, counties served, eligibility requirement parameters – if any, and basic services). No phone call.
On Thursday, I see an email from you asking what questions I have. I had communicated what I wanted to know twice already and the third time via surrogate Davison County public health people to you. So, I laid out for the fourth time what topics I wanted to cover in my first email response to you [Mel Olson, email to DOH spokesperson Tia Kafka, in Olson, 2023.09.05].
Like any good newsman, Olson recognizes that there’s a bigger story to tell, and he tells Kafka that he has new questions to ask:
Now you ask a fifth time for the areas of interest that I have previously addressed in person, over the phone and via email. I am no longer interested in the feel good, basics story. Here are my questions for the bigger story:
- Why are local personnel gagged and prohibited from informing the public, via local media, of the basics of their operation – hours of service, county or counties served, eligibility requirements and basic services – none of which are HIPPA violations?
- Why do basic questions have to be submitted in writing to Big Brother in Pierre for approval and scripted response instead of allowing local personnel to respond professionally to local media requests?
- Why are spontaneous follow up questions that may be sparked by the interviewer’s ignorance or an interesting statement by the interviewed professional to be feared?
- Why is a taxpayer funded, public entity, housed in a building purchased by the taxpayer and open to the public so secretive, at least to local media, about the basics of the services they ostensibly are in business to provide the public with?
- Why in a free society, with First Amendment rights, does a state agency feel free to restrict the flow of information and make difficult the obtaining of facts about the public purpose of their mission?
- Why must the local equivalent of a Freedom of Information Act request have to be submitted every time to get basic, non-private information that in no way impinges on HIPPA regulations?
- When was this gag policy for local employees first enacted by the department and who was the person responsible?
- Has the department been sued or otherwise brought before the Court over their policy of arbitrarily restricting information to the public about a service the public has funded with their tax dollars?
- Is this restrictive, ridiculous, counter-productive, poor public relations policy ever reviewed with an eye to allowing local officials to tell the media what they obviously tell any person who walks in the door for service on an individual basis?
Again, written answers do me no good. I understand, given the difficulties your department’s policy presents to First Amendment rights and the arrogance it represents in relation to taxpayer funding that you may have no wish to answer these or any other questions.
I think you’d agree, it would have been much simpler and more positive for the department had local people been able to answer the simple “ABC” questions about their basic operations or if you or someone else at the department had recognized how innocuous the initial request was and how good it would have been for your public relations and then participated in a simple straight forward “no gotchas” interview.
I sincerely hope that in the future the department will allow line personnel to answer basic questions about the service they provide for the taxpayer at their expense without jumping through all the bureaucratic hoops. It would be informative for the taxpayer, good public relations for the department and involve less suspicion and angst for all concerned [Olson to Kafka, in Olson, 2023.09.05].
The Department of Health has not replied to Olson’s questions.* Olson says the state’s refusal to answer even basic questions from reporters about the services our tax dollars are funding “is arrogant, dismissive of the taxpayer, and a disservice to the public they claim to serve.” Olson can expect an arrogant and dismissive tweet from the Governor’s Office as soon as they get done writing the Governor’s big Trump-endorsement speech for tonight’s spectacle.
Update 14:59 CDT: Mel Olson’s article published September 5 indicated DOH had not replied to the email with the questions he published. However, this afternoon, eager reader Tia Kafka forwarded this reply, which she says was also sent to Olson:
We appreciate your desire to learn more about the Department of Health’s Community Health Services available in Davison County. We currently have two Public Health Nurses and one Dietician providing services in Davison County. Historically, these staff members have served clients only in Davison County; however, starting September 1, 2023, these staff members will also provide Community Health Services in Aurora County and potentially other counties in the area. The Community Health Office is open 8:00am to 5:00pm Monday through Friday. We offer a wide variety of public health services, including pregnancy care, breastfeeding support, immunizations, school health screenings and education, safe sleep education, car seat safety, developmental and social emotional screenings and referrals, and the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, also known as WIC.
Regarding our media protocol: the Department of Health is grateful for the knowledge, expertise, and hard work of staff throughout our department. They fulfill numerous job duties on a daily basis, and interacting with the media is not within those core job duties. It is, however, within my job duties. To make this process go more smoothly in the future, I would encourage you to reach out to me directly, and I would be happy to facilitate your request. This organization is so that our dedicated professionals are able to focus on their own jobs while trusting me to respond to media inquiries as is appropriate [Tia Kafka, Department of Health Marketing and Outreach Director, email to Mel Olson, forwarded to DFP 2023.09.08].