Category Archives: Government

Caution in order when tackling newly released Medicare data

Charles Ornstein

About Charles Ornstein

Charles Ornstein is a senior reporter with ProPublica in New York. The Pulitzer Prize-winning writer is a member of the Association of Health Care Journalists' board of directors and past president.

AHCJ hosted a webcast about the CMS data, featuring several CMS officials and Charles Ornstein, a senior reporter at ProPublica and member of AHCJ’s board of directors.

The federal government is expected Wednesday to release data on the services provided by – and money paid to – 880,000 health professionals who take care of patients in the Medicare Part B program. For 35 years, this data has been off limits to the public – and now it will be publicly available for use by journalists, researchers and others.

While the data offers a huge array of stories, which could take weeks or months to report out, it also has some pitfalls. Here are six things to be aware of before you dig in:

Have a strategy for storing and opening the data. This data set is big. About 10 million rows, from what I hear. Because of that, you won’t be able to analyze it in Microsoft Excel and you might not be able to open it in Microsoft Access. You’ll want to upload it onto a data server and analyze it in a more powerful program such as SQL or SPSS. This could well serve as a barrier to entry for smaller news organizations. You may want to partner with an academic institution or another news outlet to analyze the data. Continue reading

Court ruling may signal tougher stance on hospital-physician ventures

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.

Image by SalFlako via flickr.

Image by SalFlako via flickr.

One of the most significant trends in health care over the past few years has been the merger of physician groups with hospitals. By acquiring physician groups, hospitals and health systems can develop accountable care organizations and gain a competitive advantage by requiring employed physicians to refer patients to them.

But last week a federal judge in Idaho ruled that St. Luke’s Health System in Boise had violated antitrust law by acquiring the 40-physician Saltzer Medical Group, in nearby Nampa, Idaho, in December 2012. At the time, Saltzer was the largest independent multispecialty group practice in the state. As result of the antitrust violation, the judge said the hospital had to unwind the acquisition.

Given that the Federal Trade Commission was a plaintiff in the case, the decision raises a question about whether the FTC will pursue antitrust cases in other cases when hospitals acquire physician groups. The decision on Friday by B. Lynn Winmill, chief judge of the U.S. District Court in Idaho, marked the first time a federal court had decided an FTC case against a hospital acquiring a physician practice, as Beth Kutscher explained in Modern Healthcare. Continue reading

Media groups decry CDC’s silence on W.Va. spill; agency admits communication missteps

Felice J. Freyer

About Felice J. Freyer

Felice J. Freyer is a member of AHCJ's board of directors, serving as vice chair of the organization's Right to Know Committee. She is a medical writer for The Providence (R.I.) Journal.

The recent chemical spill in West Virginia, which contaminated the drinking water of 300,000 people, became another occasion when federal agencies shut the door on reporters seeking answers, fueling public anxiety with their silence.

But after complaints from journalism organizations, including AHCJ, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week issued a mea culpa and a pledge “to work to reach that critical balance between accuracy and timely release of information the public expects and needs to protect their health.”

The CDC told West Virginia health officials on Jan. 15 that pregnant women should not drink the water until the chemical, called Crude MCHM, was at “nondetectable levels.” Reporters from the Charleston (W.Va.) Gazette had a lot of questions about this order – but could get no answers from the CDC press office. Continue reading

What we know – and a bit of what we don’t – about HealthCare.gov

Joanne Kenen

About Joanne Kenen

Joanne Kenen, (@JoanneKenen) the health editor at Politico, is AHCJ’s topic leader on health reform and curates related material at healthjournalism.org. She welcomes questions and suggestions on health reform resources and tip sheets at joanne@healthjournalism.org.

healthcare-dot-gov-codeI’m not particularly tech savvy but, one month into the HealthCare.gov website mess, here’s some of what I think we do know now – and what we are still waiting to find out.

Traffic: Volume was high, and it was one reason for the system’s poor performance. But it was not the only reason, not by any means. Nor have I seen a convincing explanation for why the administration low-balled the traffic expectations.

Code: There are millions of lines of it and it’s a mess. It’s being rewritten/worked-around. We don’t know much more than that. Continue reading

Delaying Affordable Care Act not as simple as it sounds

Joanne Kenen

About Joanne Kenen

Joanne Kenen, (@JoanneKenen) the health editor at Politico, is AHCJ’s topic leader on health reform and curates related material at healthjournalism.org. She welcomes questions and suggestions on health reform resources and tip sheets at joanne@healthjournalism.org.

healthcaregovWith all the website woes, you are going to hear a lot more about “delaying” the Affordable Care Act.

But what “delay” means is in the eye of the beholder – or maybe in the political affiliation of the beholder. It’s helpful to think about “delaying” the whole law or the mandate (mostly but not only a Republican idea) versus “extending” the enrollment period – but keeping the mandate in force for 2014, although it could be even weaker than it already is for the first year. That’s an idea that we’re beginning to hear from more Democrats – including several senators up for re-election in red states in 2014. Continue reading

Attorney argues confidentiality provision in SNAP case was misinterpreted

Pia Christensen

About Pia Christensen

Pia Christensen (@AHCJ_Pia) is the managing editor/online services for AHCJ. She manages the content and development of healthjournalism.org, coordinates social media efforts of AHCJ and assists with the editing and production of association guides, programs and newsletters.

The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals held hearings yesterday on a 2011 lawsuit brought by the Argus Leader of Sioux Falls, S.D., over whether data about the payments made to businesses participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, should be publicly available.

As Josh Gerstein reports for Politico, an attorney for the newspaper argued that “a lower court judge misinterpreted the law by ruling that a confidentiality provision for retailer applications allowed the U.S. Department of Agriculture to withhold all data on payments to those retailers.” Continue reading

Reporters provide insight into causes of insurance marketplace glitches

Joanne Kenen

About Joanne Kenen

Joanne Kenen, (@JoanneKenen) the health editor at Politico, is AHCJ’s topic leader on health reform and curates related material at healthjournalism.org. She welcomes questions and suggestions on health reform resources and tip sheets at joanne@healthjournalism.org.

Image by kelp via flickr.

As one of my colleagues emailed me the other day: “Life’s a glitch.”

We know we’ll be hearing A LOT more about the health care marketplace glitches, including testimony at some upcoming Congressional hearings.

I have not read every article that has come out about the technical problems but here are some that I think are particularly useful right now; there are going to be a lot of developments in this story so whatever I write now will soon be outdated soon.

The Wall Street Journal, on Friday, had what is probably the most detailed description (in plain English) about what the “glitch” is.  Continue reading

Report on how the federal shutdown affects older adults

Liz Seegert

About Liz Seegert

Liz Seegert (@lseegert), is AHCJ’s topic editor on aging. Her work has appeared in Kaiser Health News, The Atlantic.com, New America Media, AARP.com, Practical Diabetology, Home Care Technology report and on HealthStyles Radio (WBAI-FM, NYC). She is a senior fellow at the Center for Health, Media & Policy at Hunter College, NYC, and a co-produces HealthStyles for WBAI-FM/Pacifica Radio.

This week’s shutdown of the federal government has some very real and immediate impacts on the nation’s older adults. Money funneled through the Older Americans Act for meals, caregivers, legal help, and family caregiver training will soon dry up, according to a report in the Eureka (Calif.) Times-Standard.

Other programs, like energy assistance for low-income families, which help pay heating bills, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), which provides cash to the impoverished, and Social Services Block grants, which help states fund initiatives like elder abuse programs and senior services, will be hit hard if the impasse continues for any length of time.

Money for many of these programs ran out at midnight on Sept. 30; because they are either discretionary, or require re-authorization, they’re at a standstill until an appropriations bill is passed. Some local programs which rely on partial federal funding for vital senior services like Meals on Wheels  face the daunting prospect of temporarily halting operations. However, spokespersons for other organizations say they’re OK for now. Continue reading

Barring access to information, officials poses threat to public health

Pia Christensen

About Pia Christensen

Pia Christensen (@AHCJ_Pia) is the managing editor/online services for AHCJ. She manages the content and development of healthjournalism.org, coordinates social media efforts of AHCJ and assists with the editing and production of association guides, programs and newsletters.

Alice Dreger, a professor of clinical medical humanities and bioethics at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, writes for Pacific Standard Magazine about the public health threat caused by public officials who censor news, fail to respond to press queries or prevent health agency employees from speaking to journalists without a representative from the press office.

Dreger points to the current Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) crisis, referring to a piece in Wired by AHCJ board member Maryn McKenna. But she also reminds us that it was journalists who sounded the alarms about the dangers of thalidomide and the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, not to mention the journalists who pushed for more public awareness of AIDS when the Reagan administration was limiting the response to the emerging disease. Continue reading

LA Times op-ed calls for releasing information about food stamp program

Irene M. Wielawski

About Irene M. Wielawski

Irene M. Wielawski, a founding member of AHCJ, is an independent writer and editor specializing in health care and policy whose honors include two team Pulitzer Prizes and a Pulitzer finalist citation for medical journalism. Wielawski, a member of AHCJ's board of directors, is chair of AHCJ’s Right to Know Committee and also serves on the Freelance and the Finance and Development committees. You can follow her at @wielawski.

Image by MapScience via flickr.

The Los Angeles Times today published an op-ed by the co-chairs of the Association of Health Care Journalists’ Right to Know Committee calling on Congress and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to end the secrecy surrounding the multibillion-dollar food stamps program.

“The debate in Congress about cutting the food stamp program has sparked predictable clashes between those who want to help the poor and those who want to cut government spending,” the opinion column said. “But strangely missing from the arguments is a shocking fact: The public, including Congress, knows almost nothing about how the program’s $80 billion is spent.” Continue reading