ACC spokesman Amy Murphy described the press campaign as very successful. For example, in Denver, KMGH 7 News published a story on its Web site that featured the two cardiology practices named in the ACC press release, Aurora Denver Cardiology Associates and South Denver Cardiology Associates, along with this quote from the CEO of Aurora: “Our staff has not had a raise since 2007.” There was no context for the rule and the rate cuts, no opposing views. The reporter did ask why cardiologists were bearing the brunt of the proposed cuts. “I think there was a bureaucratic snafu of huge proportions,” replied the president of South Denver Cardiology Associates. None of that malarkey about closing the payment gap between specialists and family doctors.
The release the ACC crafted for the Ft. Myers area provided some handy sources for reporters: three practices that warned of cutbacks to services. The News-Press in Ft. Myers found them useful, featuring one Dr. Brian Taschner, of Coastal Cardiology, who claimed that “with these cuts we’re barely going to be able to afford our overhead.” So did the Naples Daily News, which transcribed from the press release the following quote from Dr. Murali Muppala, of Advanced Heart Center: “I doubt hospitals will be able to accommodate the volume of patients that would need diagnostic tests if private-practice physicians cut back.”
The ACC has argued that if doctors will send patients to hospitals for these diagnostic tests, that it could end up costing Medicare even more money because of the higher reimbursement rates for hospitals. Most of the news stories didn’t explore this claim, which brings me back to The Miami Herald. Dorschner did explore these assertions. Ellen Griffith, a Medicare spokeswoman, told Dorschner that it was difficult to compare payments for tests done in a doctor’s office with those done in a hospital because the services were not always comparable. Dr. Robert Berenson, who was once in charge of payment policies for Medicare, and is now a fellow at the Urban Institute, told the paper that, “If the hospitals are getting paid too much, the answer is to reduce their payments.”
Given this aggressive PR strategy, we need journalists to keep a critical eye on the doctors as the cost-control debate staggers on. As Berenson put it to me: “If we can’t address the problem of highly paid, and some would say overpaid, cardiologists, then we’re not serious about getting our health care costs under control.” Therein is the seed for more stories to come.