PROVO, UT — In June, New Mexico’s Human Services Department released some news most New Mexicans weren’t prepared to hear. The state suspended Medicaid payments to fifteen of the state’s behavioral health providers after an outside audit flagged them for suspected Medicaid fraud. The funding freeze threatened to disrupt services to about 40 percent of the state’s behavioral health population—some 30,000 New Mexicans, including children in foster care, being treated for mental illnesses and substance abuse. Indeed, several health providers went out of business in the weeks that followed. Another provider stopped taking new clients.
The funding halt made national news last month. Per the New York Times:
For weeks now, New Mexico has been in the midst of a sweeping criminal investigation into 15 of its largest mental health providers, suspected of defrauding Medicaid of $36 million over three years. Arizona companies have been hired to fill in, but many patients are struggling without regular treatment. The state behavioral health system is in turmoil, with the administration of Gov. Susana Martinez under sharp attack.
New Mexico In Depth was one of the news organizations to first dig into the details of the scandal they’ve dubbed “The Medicaid Freeze.” The online nonprofit news organization is headed by Executive Director Trip Jennings, whose journalism career has had him in Georgia, Connecticut, California, and, for the last seven years, covering politics and state government for several New Mexico newspapers. In Depth, based about fifty miles southwest of Santa Fe in Rio Rancho, was launched in 2012 with a $500,000 grant from the Kellogg Foundation. I recently talked with Jennings by phone about how his startup—with a mission “to foster, promote, and publish journalism in the public interest”—has been covering the Medicaid story over the past four months. In Depth’s approach may be instructive for newsrooms with similarly small staffs and limited resources—according to its website, In Depth runs on a yearly budget of about $132,500.
Be strategic with story choice/focus. Jennings, who is the nonprofit’s only true editorial employee, and his staff of about five contractors or freelancers, don’t have the resources to report daily breaking news. For “Medicaid Freeze,” they focused on key questions raised by the state’s fraud investigation. In August, In Depth reporter Bryant Furlow outlined “10 unanswered questions about the Medicaid freeze”—ranging from, “Why has the state offered shifting explanations of the halt in payments?” to “What are the implications for Native Americans?”
When In Depth published one of its first Medicaid stories, state government officials were quick to respond with a memo saying it was acting legally because of “credible allegations of fraud.” Jennings said that wasn’t the story his organization was covering; In Depth New Mexico was mining much deeper. By July 11, In Depth was exploring what options state leaders had when they decided to halt funding to health providers, not whether they were legally permitted to do so.
Harness expertise or develop it. In the case of covering the Medicaid freeze, Jennings is well qualified. He reported on Medicaid on and off for years for the Waterbury (CT) Republican-American. He is backstopped on the project by Furlow, a medical reporter with experience covering public health funding issues.
Jennings’ advice for anyone covering a government or political beat is to ask questions beyond the politics. “If you are a state government reporter, it means understanding programs,” Jennings said. “If you are a city hall reporter, it means understanding how the programs are supposed to work. Reporters need to become somewhat knowledgeable, if not expert.”
Ask the “dumb question.” Jennings recommends “really parsing what an agency is saying or a person in power is saying.” That may also mean asking sometimes what seems like a “dumb question.”
“If you have a really dumb question at a press conference, go ahead and ask it, because there are probably other people in the crowd who want to ask it to,” Jennings said.