Reading the Business Press

Wal-Mart, Health Insurance, Capitalistpig

We’re always happy to see the irrationality—and cruelty—of the U.S. insurance system placed before business press-readers and have argued
for a long time that the topic is a great story.

A story in today’s Wall Street Journal by John Carreyrou, “How U.S. Health System Can Fail Even the Insured; A Woman Endures 16-Month Odyssey To Get a Diagnosis,” describes the difficulty Barbara Calder has in getting help in diagnosing a genetic disorder called Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome.

The story’s main point is that the health-insurance system is inefficient and provides poor service, even if you have insurance. And it’s a good point.

But the problem is, that point was true last year, five years ago, and long before that. The story relies for a news peg on polling that shows Americans are ready again to discuss political solutions to the health insurance problem.

Polls show that health care has become Americans’ No. 1 domestic concern, thrusting it to the center of the presidential campaign. Every major candidate has introduced a health-care reform plan. But for the most part, these plans focus on providing coverage to the 45 million uninsured or reining in medical costs. They do little to address the myriad hurdles insured patients often encounter when they seek care.

The Journal gets zero points for courage on this one.

If the political candidates’ plans are inadequate, as the Journal story has it, we would argue it is because the public hasn’t been sufficiently briefed on the facts of the issue and the candidates have not felt the weight of public pressure for more thoroughgoing reform, which seems to be what the Journal story is calling for.

In a sense, this is the opposite of the story we wrote about last week, a Los Angeles Times piece on the uninsured, which grew not just out of a pending court case but is part of the LAT’s ongoing commitment to insurance reporting over many years.

It’s the difference between following the public’s agenda and setting it.

On the subject of health care, we really liked The New York Times story on Tuesday’s front page by Michael Barbaro and Reed Abelson about Wal-Mart Stores Inc. improving health- care coverage for its employees.

Rarely does a story about a change in company policy feature a chief executive saying, “Gee, I was wrong.” From the story:

Across the country, politicians and labor groups derided the company’s health plans for their high expense and bare-bones coverage. Two states, California and Maryland, even passed laws demanding, in effect, that the company spend more on employee health benefits.

“We want this giant to behave itself,” one Maryland legislator, Anne Healey, said at the time.

The giant, it turns out, was listening. All the criticism was hurting its reputation and its ability to expand. So now, after spending two years seeking advice from everyone from Bill Clinton to executives at Starbucks, Wal-Mart is overhauling its health plans.

The company, according to data available for the first time, is offering better coverage to a greater number of workers. Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest private employer, provides insurance to 100,000 more workers than it did just three years ago — and it is now easier for many to sign up for health care at Wal-Mart than at its rival, Target, whose reputation glows in comparison.

The Times brought the story in with a full-media package of charts, graphs, online links to the health plans of various retailers, as well as a Q&A with Linda Dillman who oversees Wal-Mart’s employee health care program, and an audio notebook with Barbaro.

An interesting scoop here is the admission by H. Lee Scott Jr., the company’s chief executive, that the old health plan was misguided:

The company’s turnabout demonstrates the power of public pressure to change even the biggest corporations like Wal-Mart, which has based its business strategy on low costs at all costs.

What Wal-Mart discovered is that the chorus of critics it had long ignored or blithely rebutted had a point. “We were spending a lot of energy, and we weren’t making any headway,” said H. Lee Scott Jr., the company’s chief executive, who once traveled the country defending the retailer’s practices. “Retrospectively now I say, yes, that plan needed to be improved.”

The admission is self-serving and scripted, but a scoop nonetheless.

Poking around the new Fox Business News Web site we stumbled on to the online videos by Jonathan Hoenig, a hedge fund manager. He runs a private investment partnership in Chicago named Capitalistpig Asset Management. (Nyuck. Nyuck.)

This is how he wrapped up a spot on Thursday:

I want to congratulate Larry Page. Larry, of course, is the co-founder of Google. Larry is 34-years old, worth $20 billion and he is marrying a sweet piece of tail named Lucy Southworth. I found pictures of her on, you guessed it, Google. Blonde, magnificent body, cute as a button. So, Larry you are my man. Congratulations. You are a prince. But considering you are worth 20 billion, I have one piece of advice for you: prenup.

We know that FBN is new and has a lot to look after. But, still, some quality control is in order, even on the Web, or maybe especially there.

If Hoenig’s video-blog is FBN’s attempt to develop someone to compete with CNBC’s Jim Cramer, that’s fine. Informality is also fine with us. So, too, is pushing conventional boundaries, if that what this is, though the pushing of boundaries long ago became its own convention.

But talent is required, and there has to be a point, even if the point is humor: the bit must provide value, provoke thought, or at least be remotely funny. This just doesn’t qualify on any level.

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Anna Bahney is a Fellow and staff writer for The Audit