Over the years, I have filed many FOIA requests, and I have learned that it can take a long time to get a response. But CDC takes the cake.
In my experience, all the agencies meet the statutory requirement of “responding” within twenty days, but that “response” is almost always a simple acknowledgement of the request. Getting the actual documents can take months, or more. It’s just part of the process. But even in the context of FOIA, CDC is notorious for its slow responses. And this month, I got hilarious proof of that.
Way back in March 2014 – yes, more than three YEARS ago – I filed a FOIA request with CDC for documents showing how much money CDC contributed to the IOM study, and any communications between CDC and the Office on Women’s Health about the study. I filed identical requests with other health agencies, too. Then I waited.
Responses trickled in, anywhere between one and fifteen months after I filed the requests. But for CDC, I waited. And waited.
Then on June 14, 2017, I received a letter from CDC. But it didn’t accompany released documents. Nope. The letter said:
Your FOIA request is currently estimated at $227.50, which exceeds the $100 maximum FOIA processing fees you are willing to pay. Please know that this is the current estimate and fees could increase due to the amount of time it may take to review any responsive records received.
My immediate reaction to this letter looked something like this:
Friends, I have filed more than 50 FOIA requests over the past few years. Some of the responses have been hundreds or even thousands of pages. I have never, not ONCE, been charged money for those responses. The law allows recovery of fees, and the government notifies you if the search will cost more than a threshold amount. Despite the fact that my requests have sometimes involved lengthy searches, I have never been charged a dime.
It’s almost like CDC doesn’t want to disclose documents. If I were trying to discourage people from filing FOIA requests, I would stretch response times out as long as possible and I would charge as much as possible.
Now, as a former litigator, this kind of thing piques my interest. If finding responsive documents is going to cost more than $200, how many documents are there? What if it is a treasure trove? The stubborn lawyer in me says “call that bluff.” When someone tries to make me go away, I’m going to show up louder and harder. That’s what I’m trained to do.
But at this point, the IOM contract has been over for two years. And I would rather spend my money on an effort that is likely to bear fruit for ME patients, like David Tuller’s work on PACE. Besides, CDC should just provide this information to the public. At a bare minimum, Dr. Beth Unger could provide the dollar figure of CDC’s contribution to the IOM contract. In fact, she could do so quite easily at next week’s CFSAC meeting. Why should anyone have to PAY to get this piece of information?
So as much as it pains me to say this, CDC can keep their documents. I’m not going to pay $200+ to the government for documents that will be heavily redacted and potentially not that much use. I just don’t have the dollars, or the energy.
But thanks for the laugh, CDC.
(Bonus: my favorite laugh video of all time, so you can laugh with me)
UPDATE: 12:31pm, June 22,2017. An anonymous and generous donor has offered to pay the $227.50 processing fee. I have sent CDC a letter accepting the fee, so now we wait for the documents. Who’s laughing now?