Tag Archives: reuters

Reuters explains Big Food’s remarkable lobbying success

Investigating for Reuters, Duff Wilson and Janet Roberts analyzed lobbying records and found that, in the past few years, the food industry has dramatically stepped up its spending in Washington and, they write, “largely dominated policymaking – pledging voluntary action while defeating government proposals aimed at changing the nation’s diet.” They give examples.

After aggressive lobbying, Congress declared pizza a vegetable to protect it from a nutritional overhaul of the school lunch program this year. The White House kept silent last year as Congress killed a plan by four federal agencies to reduce sugar, salt and fat in food marketed to children.

And during the past two years, each of the 24 states and five cities that considered “soda taxes” to discourage consumption of sugary drinks has seen the efforts dropped or defeated.

At every level of government, the food and beverage industries won fight after fight during the last decade. They have never lost a significant political battle in the United States despite mounting scientific evidence of the role of unhealthy food and children’s marketing in obesity.

That success has come through what the authors imply is a sort of big-tobacco model, in which the industry combines promises of self-regulation with huge amounts of money, and thus creates an irresistible package for lawmakers. For a blow-by-blow on how the lobbying muscle swayed the decision-makers in recent battles, I strongly recommend you read the full piece, which draws heavily from both data and extensive interviews. Particularly interesting? The examples of how the Citizens United decision has impacted far more than just election politics.

Reuters shows how shell companies hide Medicare fraud in plain sight

Reporting for Reuters, Brian Grow and Matthew Bigg used an analysis of public data to investigate the practice of using shell companies to defraud Medicare of millions while staying a step or two ahead of federal investigators.

While the specific damage inflicted by shell companies has not been tracked, “Last year, ‘improper payments’ resulted in $48 billion in losses to the Medicare program, nearly 10 percent of the $526 billion in payments the program made, according to a Government Accountability Office report last March.”

“Simply by reviewing the incorporation records of Medicare providers in two buildings” in Miami, they write, “reporters uncovered information that one government official said could prompt “a serious criminal investigation” of some of the companies.”

The fraud rings merge stolen doctor and patient data under the auspices of a shell company and then bill Medicare as rapidly as possible. Other shell companies are often layered on top to camouflage the fraud, law enforcement officials say.

Some of the shells purport to be billing companies; they form a buffer between the sham clinics and Medicare. Others pay kickbacks to doctors and patients who sign off on bogus medical claims or sell their Medicare ID numbers to enable the shell company to bill the government. Still other shells act as fronts to launder the profits.

The key to this kind of fraud, known as a “bust-out” scheme, is for each of the fake companies to bill as much as possible before authorities catch on. Shell companies become a tool that helps keep the crooks ahead of the cops.

The Armenian crime ring whose fraud made headlines last year used 118 shell companies in 25 states and bilked the feds out of at least $100 million. Varying incorporation rules make state-hopping and obfuscation “easy,” they write, especially since states don’t check to see if records are legit before they allow a company to incorporate. The reportes found that even a few simple safeguards would go a long way to detecting the boldest frauds.

In Florida, FBI agents say almost every Medicare fraud scheme involves shell companies. There, Reuters scrutinized incorporation documents for firms located in two buildings near the Miami International Airport. In a building with dimly lit corridors, a rickety elevator and almost no one in sight, a host of companies purport to provide services to Medicare recipients. But telltale signs of fraud abound.

Many of the 26 companies in the buildings had replaced corporate officers at least once in the last four years. Some had changed ownership, or their corporate executives represented more than one medical-related company. Law enforcement officials consider such activities to be red flags for fraud.

For its part, CMS told the reporters it simply didn’t have the resources necessary to conduct the widespread audits needed to catch fraud, though the $350 million allocated to such efforts under the 2010 health reform law should help.

Health journalists who will certainly want to review the “methodology” subheading at the end of the story.

Health stories top Investigative Business Journalism awards

Health-related investigations (including one by an AHCJ member) snagged both top spots in the Barlett & Steele Awards for Investigative Business Journalism this year. The awards, funded by the Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism, judge stories based on “investigative enterprise, strong business theme, writing style, clarity and impact.”

Reuters’ Murray Waas took the top spot, called the Gold Award, for “Diagnosed with Breast Cancer, Dropped by Insurer (PDF),” a four-month investigation of WellPoint’s rescission algorithm. He’ll get $5,000.

The Silver Award, meanwhile, went to AHCJ member John Fauber, of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, for “Side Effects: Money, Medicine and Patients,” the long-running conflict of interest investigation we’ve covered extensively on this blog.

There was no Bronze Award, but another health story — “Inside the Health-Care Crucible: Reports from a Hospital in a Time of Upheaval,” by the Philadelphia Inquirer‘s Michael Vitez — did earn an honorable mention. We’ve mentioned Vitez’ dispatches before, he’s the reporter who spent months “embedded” in a suburban Pennsylvania hospital.

Health care reporting among SABEW winners

Health care reporting fared well in this year’s Society of American Business Editors and Writers Best in Business Writing competition as the business of health care took center stage in many publications and earned awards for both breaking news and in-depth packages. The health-related winners:

Breaking news
Real-time News Organizations

Small Publications

Weekly Publications

Giant Publications

Large Publications

Magazine Enterprise

Oransky: Find sources with outside perspective

AHCJ Treasurer Ivan Oransky, M.D., who’s also the executive editor of Reuters Health and a teacher at NYU, stopped by Ed Yong’s “Not Exactly Rocket Science” blog to offer his tips for finding sources when reporting on studies.ivan-oransky

Oransky writes that the key is to focus on a source that provides outside perspective, not just on a source that provides an opposing viewpoint. Sometimes, Oransky says, that outside perspective will simply reinforce what the study’s authors have said. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

He also gives practical directions for finding knowledgeable sources, with specific suggestions both for reporters on deadline and for those who have the luxury of reporting things out a little.