Thursday, October 21, 2010

As If You Should Have to Ask: “Plain Writing” Rule Becomes Law

           “Huh?” has become the typical response of people who receive and are forced to read notices, pamphlets, and other government published materials.  IRS notices alone can cover several pages, front and back, with relatively no instructions.  Much to our relief, President Obama signed the Plain Writing Act of 2010 into law on October 13, 2010.
            The law requires the federal government to write its documents in simple, easy to understand language.  The law itself defines “plain writing” as writing that is clear, concise, well-organized, and follows other best practices appropriate to the subject or field and intended audience. “Americans lose time and money because government instructions, forms, and other documents are too complicated,” Senator Daniel Akaka of Hawaii, the bill’s co-sponsor said.  “The Plain Writing Act will require agencies to write documents which are clear, well organized, and understandable, leading to fewer customer service questions and increased compliance, making the government more efficient.” 
            One possible hiccup in the mandate: no punishment.  Each federal agency is stuck with the task of training and educating its employees on what constitutes “plain language,” and agency heads will issue annual reports on compliance.  However, there is no provision in the law for its violation.
Here are two examples of changes already made:

            The Department of Health and Human Services took a six-page article and replaced it
            with a single brochure:
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends a half hour or more of moderate physical activity on most days, preferably every day. The activity can include brisk walking, calisthenics, home care, gardening, moderate sports exercise, and dancing.
Do at least 30 minutes of exercise, like brisk walking, most days of the week.

The Medicare Beneficiary Services took standard correspondence and cut it down to two sentences:

Investigators at the contractor will review the facts in your case and decide the most appropriate course of action. The first step taken with most Medicare health care providers is to reeducate them about Medicare regulations and policies. If the practice continues, the contractor may conduct special audits of the provider’s medical records. Often, the contractor recovers overpayments to health care providers this way. If there is sufficient evidence to show that the provider is consistently violating Medicare policies, the contractor will document the violations and ask the Office of the Inspector General to prosecute the case. This can lead to expulsion from the Medicare program, civil monetary penalties, and imprisonment.

We will take two steps to look at this matter: We will find out if it was an error or fraud.  We will let you know the result.

For other comparisons and examples of the new “plain writing,” visit

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