Talking Heads Over the Years

Talking to the feds is easier — and more important — in the Obama era.
by | May 11, 2010 AT 3:00 AM

We at GOVERNING have long taken a measure of (perverse?) pride in our disengagement from the federal government. In D.C., a city where everyone is obsessed with what Congress, the administration and the Supreme Court are doing, it's fun to inform people (sometimes even at those notorious Washington cocktail parties) that we focus on what's happening in St. Paul or Jackson instead.

That attitude (and, I admit, there is a little attitude to it) has long had a serious philosophical basis to it as well. Since at least the Reagan administration, the states really have been the laboratories of democracy (insert nod here to Justice Brandeis). The most interesting policy developments in recent history happened outside GOVERNING's (and my) home inside the Beltway. However, that's changed with the advent of the Obama administration. From education to health care reform, policy is increasingly being set here in Washington. And that's been a challenge.

GOVERNING is responding to this new world in a number of ways (one of which involves the launch of a new blog, GOVERNING FedWatch.) As a staff writer who covers health care, I've responded in a new way too -- by spending more time talking to the Feds. Fortunately, I've noticed something new at the federal level as well -- a new willingness to talk with the press.

The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services has always been an important force in state government. As a result, officials at CMS have been occasional sources of mine since the days when CMS was known as the Health Care Financing Administration (it changed names in 2001). But the nature of those conversations changes from administration to administration.

During the Clinton years, people would talk -- on background -- sometimes without going through the press office. Then came the great consolidation of the Bush years. All requests went to the Secretary's office, and precious few ever made their way out again. CMS and the Department of Health and Human Services basically went silent.

That's changed with the Obama administration. The next issue of GOVERNING includes a piece by me about Medicaid fraud. That's been a major focus of the Obama administration, so naturally I contacted HHS to see who if anyone I could interview. I didn't necessarily expect much. But to my surprise and delight, I got two major players, Peter Budetti, the head of the CMS's new Center for Medicaid Integrity, and Angela Brice-Smith, who heads the Medicaid Integrity program. Look for my story next month to see what they have to say. Here's hoping for many more talks with the folks at CMS and HHS as health reform picks up steam.