Alice in Wonderland Coverage of Controversial Health Audit

February 9th, 2015 · No Comments · journalism, Uncategorized

By Arthur Alpert

At the Albuquerque Journal, as in Alice’s Wonderland, the “journalism” becomes “curiouser and curiouser.”

I refer to the coverage of the saga involving the Governor’s ousting of 15 behavioral health contractors who were replaced by 12 Arizona companies.

The Journal reported the latest chapter Jan. 29, when new Attorney General Hector Balderas released the audit that possibly triggered the entire episode. (I say “possibly” because I don’t know what triggered the audit.)

Staff writer Deborah Baker’s account that day included a lot of background and an update on continuing investigations.

And a few days later, Feb 3, the Journal editorial board weighed in with an opinion headlined:

Controversial health audit is out and the world is still turning”.

The editorial concluded that, “ it’s now even harder to understand the position taken by [former AG Gary] King and the three judges who agreed with him that secrecy was essential.”

Got that? AG Balderas releases the audit and the Journal reports his action and moves on to applaud the release.

Anything missing?

Oh, yes, right. The content of the audit, what the AG opened to scrutiny as the world turned. Where’s the scrutiny? I am writing Sunday, Feb. 8, and the Journal has yet to report what was in the report.

Or what wasn’t.

Or what it might mean.

By contrast, Trip Jennings at New Mexico In Depth.com dealt with all that within hours. His story under the rubric, “Health audit offers striking numbers but no proof of fraud”, opened this way:

“The headline the New Mexico Human Services Department trumpeted in June 2013 was eye-popping: An audit of 15 health organizations found nearly $36 million in potential overbilling and possible Medicaid fraud.

“But the state-commissioned audit, released Thursday by new Attorney-General Hector Balderas, does nothing to provide definitive proof that the 15 organizations defrauded Medicaid, the government’s health insurance program for the low-income, including those who are mentally ill or struggle with addiction.”

If Jennings has it right the ousting of the New Mexico companies, their replacement by Arizona companies and the turmoil for clients might not have been just or necessary.

Was that why the Journal didn’t touch the story?

Jennings also found the audit itself contained several irregularities, including some blatant mistakes.

But, he stressed, while it doesn’t offer evidence of probable cause to believe there was Medicaid fraud, “there is no assurance fraud won’t be found.”

It’s an excellent caveat. As every reporter should know, the private contractor ripping off the government is as American as apple pie, going back at least to the merchants who supplied troops pursuing Manifest Destiny in the West, continuing through World War II (Google the Truman Committee of WWII), the military-industrial complex of the Cold War and some contractors employed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

(Though this is non-partisan history, you won’t find it in New Mexico’s largest daily; its narrative contrasts untrustworthy governments with heroic used car dealers.)

But back to Jennings – he, his NMID colleagues and journalistic partners have owned this story, pushing, pulling and querying while the Journal played catch up.

In her excellent post here Sept. 16, 2013, my colleague Denise Tessier characterized Journal coverage as “piecemeal” and less ‘pointed” than some others.

On Dec. 1, 2013, I argued Journal coverage was “also late and passion-free.”

And now, it’s become story-free.

Why would anyone do that? I cannot say for sure. But an editor making a journalistic or news judgment would have had a content story ready when the AG released the report, time permitting or if time didn’t allow, the next day.

Alternatively, if an editor made a political judgment, well, that might explain the missing story.

It’s conceivable, of course, that the story fell through the cracks and nobody noticed.

Which theory might have satisfied Alice’s Queen, who sometimes “believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

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