In the SPJ’s 2010 Sunshine State Awards, AHCJ members made their presence felt in the “Medical/Health Care/Science Reporting” category, where they snagged two of the three spots.
The Miami Herald; John Dorschner; Healthcare costs
“Thanks to Dorschner’s detail-oriented reporting, readers of The Miami Herald learned just how much a 45-hour hospital stay for thyroid treatment might cost. Dorschner did not stop there either, confronting the hospital with the charges and asking them to justify the expenses – which they declined to do.”
The Palm Beach Post; Stacey Singer; Swine flu
“So many stories were written about swine flu in 2009 but few of them provided the human details and intimate touches of Stacey Singer’s reports. She introduces us to the people who were deeply affected by the flu, especially the expectant mothers and their children who were most vulnerable to it. She tells their stories with vivid, insightful details.”
In Mental Health America’s Awards for Excellence in Coverage, Portrayals of Mental Health Issues David Jackson pulled in the investigative reporting award for the Compromised Care series he did with Gary Marx. Read The Chicago Tribune‘s full package here. AHCJ members can read an article about how they reported the story.
The Miami Herald‘s John Dorschner looked into just how much of a hassle it is for laid-off employees to retain health coverage through the federal COBRA program. Along the way, he also noted that the program’s not popular with employers or insurers either.
Dorschner opens with an anecdote that shows just how broken the system is and illustrates the frustrations many are facing.
The Rosens’ case is an extreme example of something that’s happening frequently throughout South Florida: Laid-off workers are struggling through a difficult maze to keep health insurance while insurers and former employers have no interest in helping them beyond what federal and state laws require.
For employers, COBRA means unwanted paperwork and bureaucracy. For insurers, it means unwanted risk.
A key problem for insurers is that young and healthy employees who are laid off tend to reject COBRA, while older and sicker workers grab it. “Typically those who take COBRA coverage cost two to five times [[more] in benefits than a normal employee costs,” LeCompte says.
Despite its flaws, COBRA is seen to provide an important safety net, and the 65 percent federal subsidy for COBRA coverage has been extended to cover those workers laid off before March 1, 2010. Furthermore, the House version of the reform package, at least, has a provision saying that folks could retain their COBRA coverage at least until federal insurance exchanges begin sometime around 2013.
The Miami Herald‘s Scott Hiaasen delved into South Florida’s massive painkiller industry, one which, enabled by loose laws and lax oversight, supplies a massive underground distribution network reaching throughout the South and New England. According to Hiaasen, pills flow by the thousands every day through an ever-growing number of clinics offering drugs and prescriptions to walk-in patients at strip malls and nondescript office parks.
In the last six months of 2008, doctors at Broward’s pain clinics handed out more than 6.5 million pills of the potent painkiller oxycodone — almost four pills for every Broward resident, according to federal data compiled by the Broward Sheriff’s Office.
Among Hiaasen’s findings:
- 45 South Florida doctors sold nearly nine million oxycodone pills in the last six months of 2008.
- 33 of the top 50 oxycodone-dispensing doctors in the United States practice in Broward County.
- The number of pain clinics in South Florida grew from 60 to 150 in the past year, the DEA estimates.
- Overdose deaths in Florida caused by oxycodone rose from 340 in 2005 to 705 in 2007.
In a companion story, Hiaasen looks at the other end of the prescription painkiller pipeline: rural Appalachia.
”We’re inundated with it. Florida is killing us,” said Sheriff Bill Lewis of Lewis County, Ky., population 14,000. “There’s a carload that leaves here so often — hell, every week or so — to go to Florida.”
In February, Lewis’ deputies arrested four people returning to Kentucky with almost 1,000 painkillers prescribed by Florida doctors. And last Thursday, they arrested a suspected oxycodone trafficker carrying the business card of a Hollywood pain doctor in his wallet.
Florida is the largest of the 12 states without a prescription drug monitoring plan, a fact some local lawmakers call “embarrassing.”
Jay Weaver of the Miami Herald followed up on the Herald‘s investigations into widespread Medicare fraud in South Florida. Weaver found that when 18 shuttered providers appealed to Medicare, they were reinstated only to turn around and further defraud the government of at least $5 million, much of which may never be recovered.
Last fall, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Inspector General cited the 18 medical equipment suppliers in a critical report concluding that Medicare’s appeals system was flawed because it lacked strict rules of evidence. Medicare officials don’t disagree.
”It’s always troubling when you have 18 reinstated like that,” acknowledged Kimberly Brandt, Medicare’s anti-fraud director. “They may have gotten back in, but they didn’t get back in for a very long time. That doesn’t mean we couldn’t have been more vigilant.”
Weaver reports that, six months later, officials have yet to put rules in place to prevent suspected fraudulent equipment operators from regaining billing priviliges.