A Federal Official with a “Common Touch”

Senior federal officials sometimes have a reputation or image for being far removed from the average American. This HHS official took a different approach.

A popular stereotype of high-ranking federal officials is sometimes an image of a person who is aloof, too busy to take time to commune with average taxpayers and spending time at official events or perhaps testifying at a Congressional hearing. All in all, a person who is removed from the everyday world of the average American taxpayer.

That is certainly not always the case. Some federal officials are acting contrary to that image and more willing to share information through popular but unconventional ways for the federal bureaucracy.

“Hints from Heloise” is a column that regularly appears in papers around the country. Her column has been appearing in papers since 1977 and usually reflects a topic that could be straight out of Good Houskeeping magazine. If you have a question about how to get rid of the scent from your rug after an “accident” from an errant pet, or want to know if you can use vinegar to clean out your dishwasher, chances are her column has provided an answer.

So here is a question: Why would the director for the Office of Civil Rights for the Department of Health and Human Services be writing a letter to Heloise?

He did and his letter was printed this week using his official title and agency name.

But it wasn’t for the purpose of learning more about keeping a better house or getting the latest shopping tips. Instead, he was responding to a letter from a Heloise reader when a hospital refused to give her information about her husband’s medical condition after he was admitted to the emergency room. It seems the hospital told her that a federal law required the institution to keep the information from her and, not surprisingly, she was very upset.

Winston Wilkinson wrote Heloise to advise readers that the privacy rule allows health care providers to share a patient’s health information with a spouse, other relative or friend involved in the patient’s care if the patient agrees to the disclosure or if a doctor concludes it is in the patient’s best interest. He also provided a website with more information on the laws and regulations concerning patient privacy.

Sometimes the “common touch” can be more effective and reach more people. Kudos to Winston Wilkinson for improving the image of the federal employee and for providing helpful information in a way that will reach a large number of readers.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47