The Media Microscope: Bracing for the Next Wave of Scrutiny

The subhead of a New York Times story says it all: “Send us your medical bills. We’ll use them to investigate hospital and doctor billing practices.”

The reporter called her work a “project,” not a one-off story. Translation: There’s more to come.

Just two days earlier, ProPublica co-published a similar story with The Texas Tribune. The bold headline questioned a $2,500 charge for a $175 COVID test. The article featured compelling patient testimonies describing their confusion and anger.

Frankly, it’s not a good look. And it’s not just providers earning scrutiny. As we noted yesterday, Payers are under the microscope, too, for eyebrow-raising profits.

Several months ago, before the coronavirus turned our lives upside down, the media hammered hospitals with stories about how they were using collection agencies and the courts to recover payment for care. Other investigative reporters tackled surprise billing. Many of the stories went for the jugular, painting hospitals as giant, money-hungry businesses targeting the most vulnerable. And let’s be honest – it wasn’t a hard case to make, as these bills are clearly inconsistent with any not-for-profit hospital’s mission and purpose. With heart-wrenching patient anecdotes on one side and health systems’ mind-numbing descriptions of billing practices on the other, once again, it really wasn’t a good look.

Here’s the bad news. As mailboxes fill with bills for testing and treatment of COVID-19, health systems should brace themselves for another wave of intense media coverage.

So what can you do now to prepare for the (inevitable) call from your local reporter?

First, do some investigative reporting of your own to understand your vulnerabilities:

  • Understand how you are billing for COVID-19 testing services, especially any services touted as free to patients.
  • Review the materials you are providing to patients at the time of service that describe their financial obligations. Are they understandable? Accurate?
  • Ask your finance department to conduct a spot audit of bills that have already been sent. Are they consistent? Clear? Any outliers?
  • Study your financial assistance policy, looking for any red flags.

Next, decide now how you will respond to media inquiries.

  • Imagine the headline you want.
  • Draft a media statement that reflects that headline.
  • Brainstorm the questions you think may come and create potential answers.
  • Prep and train spokespeople.

There’s no good time to be the subject of investigative reporting, but The Times and others have located a goldmine with inflammatory healthcare finance stories. They know that people are intensely concerned about both their physical and financial health right now, making it the worst time for healthcare providers to be cast in a negative light.

On top of that, your caregivers have done amazing work during the pandemic. Trust in hospitals is remarkably high. It would be disheartening to give hungry reporters an easy story that almost writes itself. Even more disappointing would be to let the final touchpoint you have with your patients (the bill) sour their entire experience.

Questions about how to prepare for media scrutiny?