WASHINGTON — A spokesman for the Health and Human Services Department said Saturday the agency remains committed to the use of outcomes data and scientific evidence in its decisions, pushing back on the characterization of a Washington Post report that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is now banned from using words like “science-based” and “transgender” in budget documents.
The spokesman, Matt Lloyd, didn’t respond to follow-up questions about whether the policy might apply more broadly, now or in the future, to other HHS agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration or the National Institutes of Health.
A separate FDA spokeswoman said earlier on Saturday that the FDA hasn’t yet received or implemented a policy to avoid certain words in budget or policy work.
The responses come after the scientific and public health community expressed outrage at the Friday report, which said analysts at the CDC were banned from using those and five other words, including “fetus,” “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” and “evidence-based,” in their budget documents.
“The assertion that HHS has ‘banned words’ is a complete mischaracterization of discussions regarding the budget formulation process,” Lloyd, from HHS, said in a statement to STAT. “HHS will continue to use the best scientific evidence available to improve the health of all Americans. HHS also strongly encourages the use of outcome and evidence data in program evaluations and budget decisions.”
“The assertion that HHS has ‘banned words’ is a complete mischaracterization of discussions regarding the budget formulation process.”
Matt Lloyd, HHS spokesman
Other agencies, including NIH and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, directed inquiries to HHS. Only FDA said it did not have a similar policy in place.
“We haven’t received, nor implemented, any directives with respect to the language used at FDA to describe our policy or budget issues,” the spokeswoman said in her full response.
Public health groups blasted the new policy over the weekend, suggesting it would have far-reaching effects on the CDC’s work and focus.
“Among the words forbidden to be used in CDC budget documents are ‘evidence-based’ and ‘science-based.’ I suppose one must not think those things either. Here’s a word that’s still allowed: ridiculous,” said Rush Holt, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
“It’s going to change behavior of people who work there. And that’s much more damaging than any direct censorship.”
Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute
Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, worries about the ban’s broader impact.
“It sends a signal to people in the agency that this is not just about the budget process,” Jha told STAT. “There’s as much of a risk of self-censorship that comes out of this than actual direct censorship. … This is the part that’s much more pernicious than any direct pronouncement.”
“So of course the administration and its defenders are going to argue that this is only about what goes into the budget,” Jha said. “But we know that the signal to the agency is much stronger than that. And it’s going to change behavior of people who work there. And that’s much more damaging than any direct censorship.”
Dana Singiser, a vice president of public policy at Planned Parenthood, called the move “unimaginably dangerous” and said it would put “millions of lives in danger.”
“You cannot fight against the Zika virus, or improve women’s and fetal health, if you are unable to use the word ‘fetus.’ You must be able to talk about science and evidence if you are to research cures for infectious diseases such as Ebola,” she said. “You must be able to acknowledge the humanity of transgender people in order to address their health care needs. You cannot erase health inequities faced by people of color simply by forbidding the use of the words ‘vulnerable’ or ‘diversity.’”
Helen Branswell and Lev Facher contributed reporting.
This story has been updated to reflect comments from HHS, CMS, and NIH.