Albany reporter fills in the holes that state report left out

Joseph Burns

About Joseph Burns

Joseph Burns (@jburns18), a Massachusetts-based independent journalist, is AHCJ’s topic leader on health insurance. He welcomes questions and suggestions on insurance resources and tip sheets at joseph@healthjournalism.org.

Photo: Norman Mosjos via Flickr

How often has this happened to you? Over the transom comes a report you believe will be the basis for a section-front story or maybe warrant page one. Many times, you’re right. You read the report, collect the highlights, conduct a few interviews, and fire off the story on deadline.

However, occasionally what you thought might be a solid report leaves important questions unanswered. That’s what happened to Claire Hughes, who covers health care for the Albany Times Union. Last fall, she received a New York Health Care Foundation report that she believed could be the basis for a useful article on hospital prices that consumers could use when choosing among the hospitals on her beat in the capital region.

The report showed that what state hospitals were charging was not based on hospital performance, but rather that hospital’s set prices based on market power. “In New York, the only determinant of a hospital’s price is its market power,” she explains in a new How I Did It article for AHCJ. This is a critically important issue for consumers who want low-cost, high-quality care and one we have covered often.

To Hughes’ chagrin, however, the report left out what she considered to be among the most salient details for consumers: which hospitals had the highest prices and which had the lowest.

The foundation report was otherwise well-done but omitted these critical facts. The researchers did not want to name individual hospitals as least or most pricey, she writes. “Those kind of details were intentionally cloaked.”

In effect, the report created more problems than it solved. How Hughes solved those problems is the essence of her piece. She employed the tools of the journalism trade to bolster the report and provide much-needed details that consumers could use without getting bogged down in too much health policy jargon, she said. Her article, “NY hospital prices tied to market power, not quality,” ran on front page in December.

In January, Trudy Lieberman recognized the effort Hughes put into her story in an article for Health News Review. “As health care costs spiral higher, hospital price increases are flying under the radar,” Lieberman wrote, explaining that Hughes’ work helped consumers compare prices and manage out-of-pocket costs.

“Now that’s the kind of hospital reporting that moves beyond ribbon cutting and miracles,” Lieberman wrote.

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