September 24, 2013

Health reporting is steeped in science and certainty. Healthcare reform is a different beast, dominated by politics and unpredictability.

Congressional battles, U.S. Supreme Court decisions and state legislative votes meant to clarify the Affordable Care Act instead produced universal frustration. Reporters are tasked with sorting through the confusion and localizing one of the most significant federal laws in decades.

I’ve written numerous “what-if” reform scenario stories the past few years. Early on, my editor and I created a mantra to focus only on our Florida and Tampa-area audience — and their ability to take care of their health and their pocketbooks. Political reporters have chopped through ideological thickets. For the most part, I’ve been able to stay focused on health.

Now, as the ACA lumbers toward its biggest milestone — the Jan. 1 health insurance requirement for nearly all Americans — more journalists want to sort the political stories from the practical. And it’s a good time, considering most of my sources, neighbors and friends all seem to be asking: “What’s this all really mean to me?”

Some important, immediate stories surrounding the 2014 changes include:

  • The new online exchange or marketplace, which primarily affects the uninsured and people who buy their own coverage
  • Expansion of Medicaid insurance for the poor (or the impact of no expansion in states opposed to it)
  • Elimination of restrictions of people with pre-existing conditions
  • Transitions businesses large and small will be making to prepare for a Jan. 1, 2015 rule change

Here are ways you can identify local issues and add community flavor.

Include local context in all your stories

The Kaiser Health Foundation’s State Health Facts lets you see who is insured and uninsured in your state. Know who will be eligible for the exchange, aided by Medicaid expansion or left out.

See if state health agencies have regional or county information. For example, Florida’s data provides basic, non-political context. The U.S. Census also has hyper-detailed data.

Don’t focus too much on one issue

The Oct. 1 launch of the online marketplace is hot, and gobs of money are being spent to attract an estimated 48 million uninsured Americans. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and other pro-Obamacare camps are regularly pitching stories.

But remember almost half of all Americans have insurance through an employer, and another 30 percent already are on Medicaid or Medicare, the government’s health insurance for seniors.

The Tampa Tribune and have seen these figures reflected in an interactive Healthcare Q&A we launched this summer, designed to answer people’s questions about the law. About half the inquiries come from people with insurance. As a result, we included specific stories on the insured in our recent series and special online report – Your Health. Your Care.

Keep politics out of explanatory stories, if you can

The political battle over Obamacare won’t end for years, but regardless, the ACA is changing how most Americans get insurance. The rancor is especially toxic in states such as Florida, where Medicaid expansion remains a hot political debate.

Personally, I avoid talking to politicians or advocacy groups for explanatory stories. I’ve seen both sides share inaccurate information. Be sure to focus on how changes affect individuals and their families.

Rely on solid resources

Political groups will keep pushing agendas, so have some reliable national sources in your pocket. For daily news, go to Kaiser Health News. Reporters there focus only on health, but the site also summarizes local and state coverage, offering ideas and context you can use.

For the big picture, The Association of Health Care Journalists has a comprehensive and up-to-date section devoted to reform. And the Alliance for Health Reform offers information in its journalist resource page.

Look outside health care

The uninsured in many cases are not sick, so hanging out at community clinics doesn’t tell the whole story. Find the poor and uninsured at places such as food banks, where people are worried about food and shelter, not health care. But often a medical condition or costly trip to the hospital led to their financial crisis.

More so, a vast majority of the uninsured are employed. Nationwide, less than 40 percent of small businesses offer insurance to their employees. Look for local small businesses collaboratives, not just Chamber of Commerce organizations that may have a political agenda.

Also, try reaching out to old sources not connected to health care. They may trust you and point you in the direction of friends or colleagues who have compelling health insurance stories.

Reporters are pros at summarizing long, detailed personal anecdotes. But be careful when choosing quotes and sound bites about the Affordable Care Act.  A person’s claim about being denied coverage may be accurate and compelling journalism, but out of context it can be a disaster.

Keep asking

So much about the Affordable Care Act is unknown, and it will be fluid for years to come. Specifics about health care costs, as well as local phone numbers and resources about the online exchange will start showing up after Oct. 1.

But many of the groups with this information are small, grass-roots groups. Keep calling or emailing contacts you have. And update your audience when helpful, concrete information becomes available.

Communities will only get hungrier for information. If possible, dedicate a place on your website for local reform and update it regularly. Use this spot to educate and interact with readers up to Jan. 1 — and long after.

Want to learn more? Shedden will be our guest in a video interview at noon Eastern on Wednesday through Poynter’s News University. Learn more and sign up now.

Related: 5 myths about the Affordable Care Act

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I'm a multimedia reporter lucky enough to explain how and why health, business, policy and your neighbors matter. Right now, I focus on health for…
Mary Shedden

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