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. Obama administration malingers on hospital bill collecting abuses:
Here’s a compelling story for any reporter who wants to shine light on a failure of basic competence — or maybe its backbone — by the Obama administration on an issue that affects millions of middle class and poor Americans and that was supposed to be the president’s number one priority.
In the article about healthcare prices that I wrote last month for Time, I reported that supposedly nonprofit hospitals not only charge ridiculously inflated prices (from a price list called the chargemaster) to people who are uninsured or underinsured, but they also routinely sue and demand that those full prices be paid. It’s a prime reason medical bills are the cause of more than 60 percent of personal bankruptcies and even more demolished credit ratings across the country.
However, one of the little-noticed provisions of Obamacare, which was passed three years ago this week, requires that nonprofit hospitals, as a condition of keeping their tax-exempt status, must adhere to rules to be promulgated by the IRS that would, among other things, not allow them to send bill collectors or lawyers after patients except under certain conditions. Those conditions include that the patients first be informed through aggressive outreach efforts of the availability of financial aid for patients unable to afford the bills and, more important, that for patients whose incomes are below certain levels, hospitals can only dun them or sue them for the discounted amounts they usually charge insurance companies, rather than the far higher chargemaster prices.
In theory, the IRS, which is a unit of the Obama Administration’s Treasury Department, could have promulgated those regulations at any time after March 23, 2010, the day Obamacare was signed into law. But the first draft of the rules was not issued until two and a half years later — last summer. And then the American Hospital Association’s lobbyists pushed back, calling the proposed rules “too prescriptive.” (To me, if anything, they seemed not prescriptive enough.) Since then, nothing has happened. No final rules have been published. That means that three years after the Obamacare signing ceremony in the White House there is still no protection from hospital lawyers and bill collectors for the patients least able to pay.
Any reporter who wants a legitimate gotcha story should ask the people drawing salaries at the Tax Exempt Government Entities division of the IRS and at its Chief Counsel’s office, as well as the Office of Tax Policy in the Treasury Department, why it takes more than three years to write rules that would immediately protect millions of Americans from the most blatantly unfair aspect of our healthcare system. Or, next time he has a presidential press conference, why not ask the man who said healthcare reform was his highest priority?
2. Another story behind the Jay Leno story?
Yes, it’s interesting that NBC is moving to replace late night host Jay Leno with Jimmy Fallon. But to me what’s more interesting is how the entire story, which has made headlines across the country and especially in New York, has relied wholly on anonymous sources. The New York Times scoop last week by Bill Carter — who wrote a bestselling book on the network’s late-night competition and seems to have access to everyone involved — contained not a single named source.
Carter’s lead, that “NBC has settled on two new stars for ‘The Tonight Show’: Jimmy Fallon and New York City,” explained that the news that Fallon was going to succeed Leno and move the show to New York was “according to several senior television executives involved in the decision.” (By the way, how many is “several”? Couldn’t Carter at least tell us that?)
From there the sources became “the executives,” “one senior executive,” “the executives,” “many TV executives speculated” (how many is “many”?), “two executives” and, finally, an “NBC spokeswoman,” who “declined comment on the move.”
I don’t doubt that the story is true. But I wish another reporter would try to figure out who those sources were — because that may be at least as interesting a story.
Here’s why: Depending on who the sources are, the leaks to Carter and others might either have been a concerted effort by both the Leno and NBC camps to begin a gradual and trouble-free transition, or they could have been the opening round in new game of corporate backstabbing.