In his “Stories I’d like to see” column, journalist and entrepreneur Steven Brill spotlights topics that, in his opinion, have received insufficient media attention. This article was originally published on Reuters.com.
1. Fiscal cliff Medicare meddling:
According to this report in The New York Times, last-minute negotiations on the fiscal cliff included new congressionally imposed limits on what Medicare will pay for “nonemergency ambulance transportation of kidney dialysis patients” and “would reduce Medicare payments for stereotactic radiosurgery, complete course of treatment of cranial lesion(s) consisting of one session that is multi-source Cobalt-60 based.’”
Yes, Congress really does get that far down in the weeds when it comes to dictating how Medicare doles out more than $500 billion a year. This includes, for example, overseeing the payments Medicare allows, by state, for designated categories of ambulance rides (“critical,” “emergency,” “air evacuation,” etc.).
There are two obvious stories here: What scandalous overpayments or abuses in those nonemergency kidney dialysis ambulance trips triggered this intervention, and who in Congress pushed for it? Similarly, what’s the story behind those Cobalt-60 treatments?
Beyond that, either of those tidbits would be a good lead-in for a broader story about the more typical type of congressional intervention when it comes to Medicare. Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle habitually succumb to lobbyists in ways that keep Medicare costs far higher than they need to be. For example, except in a few regions of the country, Medicare is not allowed to conduct competitive bidding for medical equipment ranging from canes to wheelchairs to oxygen supplies. The result is billions in overpayments every year, with Medicare paying more per cane to buy tens of thousands of canes than you would pay to buy them one at a time at Wal-Mart. At a time when Medicare cuts are center stage in the ongoing deficit debate, why not try to identify the cost of this congressional meddling?
2. Surprise! Gannett makes news for its journalism:
Two weeks ago a Westchester, NY-based daily newspaper, the Journal News, ignited a firestorm by publishing a map showing the locations of all those in the communities it covers who had received handgun permits. Those who clicked on the electronic version of the map on the Journal News website were shown the names and addresses of all the permit holders.
“We felt sharing information about gun permits in our area was important in the aftermath of the Newtown shootings,” publisher Janet Hasson told Reuters.
But supporters of gun rights complained that the permit holders had been singled out as bad guys even though they had done exactly what gun control advocates support - comply with a screening and registration process. FoxNews.com quoted an “ex-burglar” as saying that having a list of households that have guns would have made his job easier because he would know which places to avoid.
The reaction to the story became so heated that by last week the Journal News had posted armed guards outside its office.
The paper’s unusual project gave new context to the issue of whether disseminating information that is legally available to the pubic - in this case, records of gun permits - can become invasive of privacy when digital technology allows it to be made so accessible that it is arguably too public. But there’s another angle I’m waiting for a media reporter to explore: how the controversy generated by this local paper contrasts with the culture of its corporate parent.
The Journal News is part of the Gannett newspaper chain of 82 dailies. Many of those papers have distinguished histories as the journalistic pillars of their communities. But in recent years, Gannett has become a conservative company that eschews controversy; to the extent it has been in the news in the past few years, the reports have been about the business reverses and accompanying rounds of layoffs and furloughs it has suffered amid the general decline of the newspaper business. Although Gannett has recently received some good press for increasing revenue by charging for its websites’ content, the news has still been about Gannett’s business, not its journalism. Yet now, Gannett, through the Journal News, has stepped front and center into America’s highly charged post-Newtown debate over guns.
So far, although the Journal News’s publisher has publicly supported her editor’s decision to publish the gun permit story and website map, I haven’t come across any statements one way or another from Gannett’s corporate officers. I would love to see a story about how the company is handling this.