Cover health care, or any beat, long enough and most journalists will discover that one story leads naturally to another.
In a new How I Did It for healthjournalism.org, Williams explained that in the spring of last year, she began work on a series to outline how the Affordable Care Act was affecting Georgia consumers. In that series, she reported that 400,000 state residents made too much money to qualify for Medicaid but also too little to receive tax subsidies for health insurance on the federal marketplace. Georgia is one of 19 states that has not expanded Medicaid under the ACA.
Her goal for the first series was explain how the decision not to expand Medicaid affected Georgians and the impact that the decision had on the state’s economy. What she learned while reporting on the later eventually led Williams to look at how Georgia’s rural hospitals were struggling financially.
Since 2010, 58 rural hospitals have closed nationwide, according to the Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research at the University of North Carolina. Williams reported that eight such facilities closed in Georgia since 2001, and dozens more hospitals were losing money.
Clearly, the hospital closure issue was significant enough to deserve in-depth coverage. “As a result, the series focusing on consumers led to a second series looking at struggling rural hospitals,” Williams wrote. “Our coverage in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution tends to focus on the metro Atlanta region, home to our largest readership. But my editors and I believed that the issues faced by rural hospitals affect so many Georgians – nearly one in 10 – that it was important for us to cover it thoroughly.”
For the hospital closure project, she analyzed five years of financial data that the 61 remaining rural hospitals had reported to the Georgia Department of Community Health and then had each hospital review the numbers. She also traveled almost 1,000 miles to interview residents, hospital executives, state legislators, county officials, business owners and others.
One of the strengths of her work is showing how health policy issues affect ordinary citizens. In this effort, AJC demonstrated the craft of its photographers and online staff. Web producers, for example, created a statewide interactive map showing which hospitals closed and which rural facilities remained.
After the first two series ran, she started another series of articles about how the decision in Arkansas to expand Medicaid affected rural hospitals. In recent weeks, she’s produced yet another series on the lack of access to mental health services in Georgia. You can read those stories (paywall) here, here, and here.