June 8, 2011

Great stories rain down on you every day. You just have to learn to seize the opportunities that are right there, even if they come in the form of a solicitation, as they did for ProPublica reporter Marshall Allen.

In February 2011, Allen answered a call at home from a solicitor trying to sell him expensive medical scans that the company said could save his life. The company, called “Heart Check America” offered “free heart scans” to Allen and his wife “an $800 value.”

“I’m a pretty curious and friendly guy and I enjoy people, so telemarketers always have put me in an awkward position,” Allen told me. “A few years ago I took a different approach with telemarketers, really just to amuse myself. Whenever I’d get a telemarketing call, I decided to just have fun with the person on the phone and interview them, just to see how long I could keep them on the phone. Before long, I’d be asking them about their lives, dreams, career aspirations and how telemarketing did or did not fit into it, etc., and they’d be trying to get off the phone with me.”

Allen said he always thought he’d write about his experiences with telemarketers but never did, until Health Check America called.

“I knew immediately when I got the call that it was a story, so I just started taking notes. And I’d ask them questions to test how they’d answer. For example, I asked if there were risks associated with this procedure. They said it was ‘risk free,’ and I knew that was not true.They should be disclosing things, not just glossing over the facts. It was clearly a one-sided conversation meant to sway me. It was not a presentation that had intellectual integrity. So when they invited me to have an appointment, I basically told my wife she’d have to take one for the team and I made the appointment.”

Allen said he told the telemarketer upfront that he was a journalist who worked for ProPublica, but he didn’t say he was working on a story as he asked questions and took notes.

Within a few weeks of the call, Allen and his wife visited the company’s Las Vegas clinic and learned more about the company’s pitch. In his article for ProPublica, Allen wrote:

The company’s Electron Beam Tomography machines could have spotted the harmful build-up of calcium in their arteries, indicating they were at risk. The company scanned other organs, too. Perhaps a test could have helped Patrick Swayze, who died of pancreatic cancer, Tom said.

After 45 minutes, Tom got down to business. He pulled out a price sheet and urged us to go beyond the free scans and upgrade to a 10-year contract for annual imaging services, including heart, lung, bone-density and other scans. If we signed up immediately, the contract – usually $7,995 – could be ours for just $2,995 plus $199 in annual dues. Financing was available on the spot.

Allen, who, for the last five years has written extensively about health care issues, said the pitch for repeated scans raised concerns.

“I do know that beaming radiation into a patient’s body comes with some risks. I was astonished that they would call me at random, with no doctor being involved, and just offer to perform a CT scan on myself and my wife. That made me suspicious. Then I got really alarmed when they said it was mandatory that I attend the appointment with my wife. That sounded like a good move for them to manipulate the emotions of a couple of make a deal. Plus, it’s not normal, medically speaking. to require a spouse to be in a consultation. It’s really a violation of a person’s privacy.”

Allen discovered the company operated in five states and claims to have generated $30 million in sales revenue. It also has a long trail of troubles, including consumer complaints and doctor complaints. Regulators in two states cited the business and closed an operation in another for not having medical supervision and for failing to shield patients from too much radiation. Four years ago, Indiana authorities filed a lawsuit against  Health Check America’s owners for deceptive practices selling timeshares.

Allen explains, “The truth is that there would have been no story if all the experts I interviewed had not expressed so much alarm about what they were hearing.”

He found a collection of medical experts who said this kind of heart scan was not appropriate for people who have no documented risk of heart disease.

This is not the first time this company has been in the news. Late last year, Denver’s Call 7 investigative reporter John Ferrugia heard from a woman who signed up for 10 years’ worth of body scans at a cost of $5,000.  Ferrugia captured undercover video of the sales pitch.

This story demonstrates how an alert journalist finds stories all around him. But Allen offers a measure of caution. It is not enough to just report what you see and hear in your life, the key is “reporting the story out,” getting beyond the phone call to the hard truth behind the call.

“All reporters know about the pet story idea that comes from some editors when they drive into the office and see road construction, or hear something their kid said about school, or something like that. Some really bad stories can come about this way,” Allen said. “The key is reporting it out like any other tip to make sure whatever we think is a story really is a story.”

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
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