Ken Alltucker on the business of health care

by August 9, 2011
Ken Alltucker

Ken Alltucker

Ken Alltucker has covered the different faces of healthcare, especially focusing on business and technology trends. He believes healthcare is an intriguing issue not just because of the drama involved, but also because it’s big business.

As a health and biotechnology reporter with the business desk at The Arizona Republic in Phoenix, his stories range from healthcare innovations to drug frauds and recalls.

Alltucker shared his experiences covering the business of  heath care and also offered his tips for reporting on the topic.

1) What is it about heath care that intrigues you?

It is such a fascinating area because there is human interest and cutting-edge technology. It also is a major business, accounting for nearly 18 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product. Because so much of health care is paid thorough government insurance programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, covering this beat also allows a reporter to closely follow the intersection of business and government.

2) Why is health care such a contentious issue?

People are so passionate about health care because the issue is so personal. So many people have had common experiences in the health-care system. There is the doctor who practices with one hand on the door, the insurance company that rejects a claim and the hospital that sends a puzzling bill.

Much of the angst that surfaced during the health-care debate ranged far beyond health care – it was largely political. Sure, health-care interests sought to protect their turf during the negotiations. But the tenor at town halls and on television debates ranged beyond the language in the bill. Now that the new health-care law is being rolled out, some of the rhetoric has cooled. But I think we’ll see some of that flare up in 2014 when some of the more dramatic changes in the health-care law are enacted. That is, if the health-care law withstands political and legal challenges.


3) How does a journalist who is new to the topic approach covering the business side of health care?

First of all, realize that health care is a business. It can be easy to get pulled in by the relentless pitches from drug companies, medical-device makers and hospitals that want to promote the latest drug, piece of equipment or surgical procedure. But it’s important to realize that each party has a vested interest.

The hospital wants to attract more patients to improve its market share. The pharmaceutical company wants more consumers to buy their pills so they can improve sales, and so on. Certainly, medical technology can help fight disease, improve health and allow patients to recover. But it’s important to weigh cost and benefit when evaluating a new product or procedure. Never lose sight of asking basic questions such as what is the cost of the procedures? Do the benefits of the procedure or the new device outweigh potential side effects? Who stands to benefit from widespread use of a new device?

4) What opportunities does the health care beat offer business journalists? Are there any under-covered issues that need to be reported on more?

As the nation struggles to emerge from the recession, many parts of the health-care system are adjusting to the economic pressures. Medicaid programs across the nation are making cuts. In Arizona, thousands of working poor residents are being dropped from the Medicaid program. Hospitals, doctors and other health providers are also grappling with Medicaid payment cuts.

Another area to track is how the nation’s new health law will impact patients and health-care providers. The big changes come in 2014 when most people will be required to purchase health insurance, but there are more subtle changes that are creating winners and losers in the health-care industry. One example: health insurers are cutting or even eliminating commissions paid to health-insurance brokers. Insurers are doing this because they are required to spend 80 to 85 percent of their total premium dollars on medical claims. That has left insurers looking for ways to cut overhead costs.

One area that is ripe for exploration is the conflict of interest involving medicine. Pharmaceutical companies and medical-device makers are increasingly disclosing payments to doctors and other medical practitioners. These payment disclosures are mainly a result of Department of Justice settlement agreements. Some academic medical centers have strict standards on what their faculty members can take in payments from the medical industry.

5) What has been the most important lesson you have learned while covering the business of health care?

Be careful when writing about new surgical procedures, drugs or treatments. Try not to hype or exaggerate a medical problem – also known as disease mongering. How many times did you see the term “Superbug” to describe the drug-resistant staph infection? Certainly it is a problem, but it’s important to use the appropriate context.

Also, check for conflicts of interest. Does a research scientist who is aggressively promoting a device or a treatment have a patent or other financial interest in that product they are pitching?