July 3, 2014
Did Pennsylvania health department officials circulate a list of drilling-related “buzzwords” and a meeting permission form that led department staff to believe they were being silenced on the issue of natural gas development?
Two weeks ago, when StateImpact Pennsylvania first reported on the buzzwords list and meeting form, the department’s answer to that question was no.
Since then, StateImpact Pennsylvania has obtained copies of the documents, which show that department employees needed high-level permission to attend forums on Marcellus Shale.
Agency officials confirm those documents are authentic.
Two retirees with the Department of Health have said that because of the department’s policies, they and their colleagues concluded they were not supposed to respond directly to public health concerns or attend forums about drilling.
Michael Wolf, state Secretary of Health, said in an interview with StateImpact Pennsylvania this week that the goal was not to stifle the agency’s roughly 1,400 employees, but to ensure “that we are speaking with one voice.”
On February 24, 2012, the Bureau of Health Planning and Assessment sent an email to eight bureau directors and the deputy secretary.
“Please share the following email with all staff as a reminder,” it said.
The email instructed employees to call the Bureau of Epidemiology with complaints about “possible cancer clusters, health concerns related to natural gas drilling, and other types of environmental hazards” from citizens, legislators, healthcare professionals, or public employees.
It also includes a list of 19 words and phrases that may be used in these complaints including “hair falling out,” “skin rash,” superfund site, drilling, fracking and Marcellus Shale. You can read the email with the list by clicking here.
Tammi Stuck, a retired community health nurse in Fayette County, told StateImpact Pennsylvania she remembered that her supervisor – after distributing what Stuck called the list of “buzzwords” – told employees not to return calls on these topics.
“We had to take their name and number and forward it on to our supervisor,” Stuck said. “Somebody was supposed to call them back and address their concerns.”
Marshall Deasy, a retired program specialist with the Bureau of Epidemiology, said some nurses he knew also told him they were not allowed to return calls about drilling-related health complaints.
When StateImpact Pennsylvania first contacted the Department of Health, a spokesperson denied that a list was sent out to community health employees.
The department has since confirmed the February 2012 email. Spokesperson Aimee Tysarczyk said she had not been aware of the list because she did not work for the department at the time the email was sent.
“Nowhere in those documents does it say not to take health complaints as these employees are claiming,” Tysarczyk said.
That is true, but the only instruction the email clearly offers is to send complaints to the Bureau of Epidemiology.
Stuck said employees were not told how to counsel people who called other than passing the information up the chain. Normally, she said, community health nurses would discuss symptoms and gather other information from the caller.
“This was the only time I can remember getting a list of buzzwords saying this is a list that you don’t talk about,” she said.
Since 2011, Celeen Miller, a public health advocate based in Bucks County, estimates she has worked with about two-dozen people from heavy drilling areas who reported drilling-related health concerns.
She said they described to her their frustration as they were referred from their local state health offices to the Department of Environmental Protection and back again to the Department of Health.
Miller was concerned that the department’s district offices did not know how to deal with these complaints.
“It just was this lack of communication between the [state and] individuals who were concerned about what they were experiencing with symptoms whether it would be nosebleeds or asthma attacks,” Miller said. “I think it was frustrating for people. Many were afraid and concerned.”
Miller began facilitating contact between people with complaints and Department of Health employees in Harrisburg who seemed willing to help.
She was aware of the February 2012 email laying out the protocol for handling these complaints. Miller said it did not seem to minimize confusion in the district offices.
Tammi Stuck and Marshall Deasy also said that community health employees were informed in 2011 that in the future they would need permission to attend any meetings outside the agency. They said that directive came after a meeting where a consultant with the department made statements about Marcellus Shale that upset officials in Harrisburg.
Tysarczyk initially said employees were not required to fill out a form, but that it was “not unusual” for an agency to want to know what staff are doing and saying in public settings.
According to a bulletin distributed by the Bureau of Community Health on August 10, 2011, permission had to be granted by a district executive director, the bureau director or the deputy secretary depending on the nature of the meeting.
Two “special initiatives requiring Deputy Secretary approval for attendance” were Marcellus Shale and the health insurance exchanges mandated by the Affordable Care Act.
The Department of Health said that policy is still in effect.
Secretary Wolf said he did not think this policy would discourage an employee from attending a forum about natural gas development.
“One of the challenges that we in the Corbett administration faced when we walked in the door to the Department of Health was the fact that there was, from time to time, not commonality of message,” said Wolf, who would not say specifically what discrepancies existed within the department.
“One of the things we are trying to accomplish and still accomplish today is to make sure that we’re providing guidance to our employees who are working in the public and make sure that we are speaking with one voice.”
The Governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
The Department of Health said it has logged 51 complaints related to natural gas development in a database since 2011 and has found no link between drilling and illness.
However, the agency said the contents of the database include “protected health information” and cannot be made public.
“If we get a complaint that comes in from an individual it is still investigated,” said Wolf. “The only thing that really should truly matter to people is that we’re doing our job and we’re investigating what we’re supposed to investigate.”
This story comes from StateImpact, an NPR reporting project examining how state policy affects communities. See more stories on energy and the environment at StateImpact.npr.org.