Media: Denver TV journalists show our healthcare system is messed up — on TV and in legislative testimony

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Photo by Darron Birgenheier for Creative Commons on Flickr
The spotlight is shining on a trio of journalists for KUSA 9News, the Denver NBC affiliate, for the way they’ve been covering medical bills and helping save local patients money in the process. Poynter recently highlighted the special reports and investigations 9News calls Show Us Your Bills in which Colorado patients share their medical records and “prove that hospitals, clinics, doctors and other caregivers game the system to charge patients for care that was never provided.” The team includes reporter Chris Vanderveen, producer Katie Wilcox and photojournalist Anna Hewson. From Poynter:
The Show Us Your Bills investigations have helped viewers erase nearly $300,000 in medical overcharges and billing errors. Every time 9News airs a story, another dozen viewers send them detailed highly personal medical bills looking for help. The series caught fire when 9News reported the story of a man who went to the emergency room to have a splinter removed from his thumb. “He got a $2,100 bill,” Vanderveen said. “That seemed stupid.” “We didn’t have any intention of following medical billing stories for years, but at the end of that first story we put up an email,, and it became a treasure trove of stories. People were willing to send us their medical bills,” he said. “I knew they were mad but I didn’t know they were that mad.” “We are not surprised by anything anymore,” Wilcox told Poynter. “There is no shocking amount of money that they charge that surprises us.”

Reporting on complex medical issues can be tough, so the journalists break them down into “small, digestible, narrowly focused stories” and mix in “touches of satire and mockery,” the story explains.

Here’s something else that jumped out at me in the piece, which came after a line noting how the journalists were hounding local hospital CEOs who wouldn’t comment:

Keep in mind that these hospitals are also big advertisers. “They spend a ton of money on marketing,” Vanderveen said. “They are not used to being pushed back on. They are used to TV stations doing countless ‘medical miracle stories’ and those are good stories but the PR departments are not used to anybody questioning them on the pricing structure.” 9News took the reporting, which sometimes looked more like teaching, beyond the evening newscasts. Vanderveen and Wilcox produced in-depth Facebook conversations where for a half-hour they drilled down on hard-to-understand topics like “balance billing” and explained how to fight unjust charges.

“The social media conversations not only answered viewer questions,” Poynter wrote, “but they also provided some insight into the depth of knowledge that these journalists have developed after two years of studying hospital billings.”

The journalists’ public-engagement went beyond social media, though. One of them testified at the Capitol…

Here’s what I’ll add to Poynter’s great work spotlighting this important coverage: Earlier this year, Vanderveen turned some reporter heads at the state Capitol when he showed up and testified in a legislative committee on a bill that dealt with one of the medical issues 9News was digging into. “As a reporter I must say right away that neither myself nor my employer are taking a position on this particular piece of legislation for obvious reasons,” he told the lawmakers assembled before him. Then he asked a rapid-fire set of interrogatories:
“But I would pose some questions to the panel that include: Does anyone even know what STARK really says? Does anyone prepared to vote on this even know what STARK says? Does anyone on this committee know why STARK does not protect most Coloradans? Does anyone on this committee know why STARK laws wouldn’t apply to me, for example, Chris Vanderveen, investigative reporter? Does anyone on this bill know why … this bill, a healthcare bill is being heard in the State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee? And should doctors be able to refer their patients to their own companies while not letting their patients know about those particular relationships? And my last question, because I have not been able to figure this one out and if you could answer it for me I would really appreciate it: Why in the heck are so many Coloradans getting checks in excess of $100,000 from their insurance companies to pay for inter-operative neuromonitoring? If you can answer for me that question you would have solved a riddle I have been trying to discover for more than eight months.”

At the time, four print reporters and at least one lawmaker grumbled about a journalist involving himself in the legislative process or about his demeanor. “When did this become OK?” one asked me. “My mouth was agape,” another reporter told me afterward. “I generally like the idea of pinning these questions down on camera,” said another, “but maybe tone matters?”

Vanderveen tells me the project has always been about giving a voice to patients who are all too often left out of the discussion — particularly at the state Capitol. “I’m proud we’ve gone down this road,” he says via email. “Have we taken some unorthodox approaches in this now three-year long series of stories on health care billing? Yep. That’s ok. I believe it’s time for journalists to cover not only the story but the process that allows the story to happen in the first place.” He says he’s fine with some reporters thinking he went too far or if any lawmakers were critical of the approach. He cleared his remarks with the station’s management, he says. “I’m going to push this,” Vanderveen adds. “In ways that might make people uncomfortable. It’s time for that. Journalists aren’t doing their jobs if everyone likes what they’re doing.”

Who read that $18.5 million contract? Oh. Right.

“Who caught that the contract for the new CU coach was for a year longer than law allows? Not the lawyers,” said Denver Post editor Lee Ann Colacioppo on Twitter. “Not the regents,” either. It was a reporter for her paper. “That’s what journalists do: Actually read the contracts,” she said. The post was a tease for a story headlined, “Colorado accidentally approved an illegal contract for new football coach Mel Tucker.”

From the piece by Matt L. Stephens:

State law prohibits any higher education employee to be contracted for more than five years. So why did University of Colorado Board of Regents approve a six-year contract for new football coach Mel Tucker on Wednesday? In a word: oops.
Heh. Oops indeed. And they all might have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn’t been for those meddling reporters.

Colorado Public Radio keeps expanding. Now to Washington, D.C.

That’s according to a recent job listing for CPR, which says the station is looking for a reporter to produce “breaking news and enterprise from DC that resonates with a Colorado audience.” The reporter “will cover the Colorado Congressional delegation and other Colorado-related national political figures and monitor federal agencies that are developing policy that affects Coloradans.”

That’s what Mark K. Matthews used to do for The Denver Post before he left this summer for a job covering the environment at E&E News. Might it be possible that the only full-time dedicated reporter covering Colorado’s federal delegation from D.C. will be for CPR? If so, that marks a rather striking shift in journalism here and is perhaps a commentary on the benefits of the public membership model for media ownership.

Speaking of CPR…

During a recent segment about the 2018 legislative session on a year-end wrap-up taping of the PBS public affairs TV show “Inside Out,” one of Colorado media’s go-to political prognosticators, Eric Sondermann, had this to say: “The most important person around the Capitol last year was not John Hickenlooper or 100 legislators, it was Bente Birkeland.” That’s right, a reporter. “You were always waiting for what new story Bente was going to break on who was literally getting caught with their pants down.”

Birkeland was the journalist behind a series of sexual harassment scoops from the ‘dark underbelly’ of Colorado’s Capitol she broke as a reporter for KUNC and Rocky Mountain Community Radio. On the “Inside Out” show, host Dominic Dezzutti pointed out that Birkeland has since moved from KUNC to Colorado Public Radio.

What you missed on the Sunday front pages across Colorado

The Gazette in Colorado Springs profiled young, female ranchersThe Denver Postlooked at the legacy of outgoing Democratic governor John Hickenlooper, who might run for president. Vail Daily fronted the story of a local skier writing World Cup historyThe Boulder Daily Camera profiled a space mission born in BoulderThe Durango Heraldprofiled a local homeless shelterThe Coloradoan in Fort Collins profiled a local cancer patient and her bucket listThe Summit Daily News localized impacts of the partial government shutdownThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel reported on a local road-widening projectThe Greeley Tribune fronted a big takeout “busting the myths” of anti-seatbelt argumentsThe Longmont Times-Call was one of multiple papers to front an investigation by Rocky Mountain PBS called “Cultivating Crime” about the black-market marijuana industryThe Loveland Reporter-Herald covered local retail. The Steamboat Pilot reported on letters to Santa from local kids.

A Colorado crazy neighbor story

Crazy uncles. Crazy neighbors. Everyone’s gotta story this holiday season. So here’s a nutty news nugget from our neighboring state of Arizona. It kinda has it all: An “award-winning newspaper publisher,” a “bizarre divorce case,” allegations of poisoning, meth, “an ad accusing her by name, with a photo of her, bordered with images of skulls and rats,” an $18 million lawsuit, “hair and nail samples” sent to a Colorado lab, a newspaper “left on her driveway, even though she wasn’t a subscriber.” And all of it wrapped up in a “journalism ethics saga.” I’ll bite. Here’s that link again.

A new weekly print publication in the Roaring Fork Valley

“Make no mistake, starting a new ‘paper delivered’ product at this moment in the media environment is a risky proposition.” That’s David Cook, publisher of The Aspen Daily News, with the understatement of the week. But it’s a risk he’s taking with the new launch of a print publication called The Roaring Fork Weekly Journal to serve Basalt, Willits and El Jebel, Carbondale and Fryingpan Valley.

M. John Fayhee, an author-journalist who spent more than a dozen years editing The Mountain Gazette, will helm the paper’s editorial side. Anyone familiar with his work, he told KDNK in a recent interview, “knowns that I am far more attracted to off-beat stuff than I am to town council meetings … we’re definitely going to be open to silly stuff.” The journal, which has a bi-lingual correspondent, he added, will “strive to include the Latino community …  we’re going to definitely spend a lot of effort making sure that the Latino community is going to be involved in this publication.”

So, why a new publication? Cook, Fayhee wrote in the paper’s launch issue, “correctly observed that this part of the Roaring Fork Valley has long been grossly underserved by the local media. More than one resident has described the Mid-Valley as too often being lost in the newspaper shuffle, getting short coverage shrift compared to Aspen, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs.”

A well-regarded nonprofit weekly paper already exists in Carbondale called The Sopris SunThe Aspen Daily NewsAspen TimesGlenwood Springs Post-Independent and other outlets also cover the area. “I think that if we really focus on what needs to be covered and not just going after each other’s throats then the end result is going to be very positive for the reader and for the community,” Cook told KDNK. One of the first stories the new publication dug into was about open meetings issue in the town of Basalt, and the RFWJ has already filed an open records request.

Meanwhile, a JeffCo community weekly is shutting down

While one new weekly launches, another folds. RIP the Columbine Courier, “which has reported on communities, including Columbine and Ken Caryl, since about 1990,” according to BusinessDen. The paper, part of the Evergreen Newspapers network, has been unprofitable for years, publisher Kristin Witt told the site.

More from BusinessDen:

Witt said readership has been strong. Staff put out about 10,000 issues on racks each week, and typically end up bringing back about 200, she said. The two reporters who wrote for the Columbine Courier will remain with the company, filing for the other publications. Witt said some Columbine Courier readers have expressed disappointment that the title is going out of print, and she’s exploring having The Canyon Courier report on the area. Witt said The Canyon Courier already reports on county issues, which are relevant in both Evergreen and Columbine. But to justify covering more local issues, a sizable chunk of Columbine-area residents need to subscribe to the Evergreen paper, she said.
But, she told the site, while the free weekly covering portions of Jefferson County is going poof, Evergreen Newspaper’s two other publications “look very strong and have a bright future.”

…As another print paper launches in the Springs

All aboard the Southeast Express, a new nonprofit print newspaper serving the southeastern community in Colorado Springs. “The paper is the newest addition to Colorado Publishing House and is powered by the technical and logistical support of the Colorado Springs IndependentColorado Springs Business Journal, the Manitou Springs-focused community newspaper The Pikes Peak Bulletin and the Colorado Military Newspaper Group,” according to its website.

The tabloid-style publication will hit the streets in February and will start out publishing every other month. Two alums from The Pueblo Chieftain are working on the project. Regan Foster is editor and Jayson Peters is its digital production manager. John Weiss, who owns the papers listed above, is the publisher. (I have a photo of the print prototype here.) Jesse Metzger, a student at Colorado College, recently sat in on a meeting with Foster and Weiss and passed along some notes. He says Foster called the city’s southeastern part of town a “news desert” and told him the paper would report on politics and elections.

The new paper will also use an unusual distribution model. “The plan, according to Weiss, is to mail copies of the tabloid to roughly 30,000 homes within the target district at no cost to readers,” Metzger writes.

A Colorado media baron gets the David Brooks treatment

New York Times columnist David Brooks says he only met the publicity shy media mogul and conservative Denver billionaire Phil Anschutz a few times. “My impressions on those occasions was that he was a run-of-the-mill arrogant billionaire,” Brooks wrote in a recent column. “He was used to people courting him and he addressed them condescendingly from the lofty height of his own wealth.” Ouch.

What was the occasion for such a Mr. Burns treatment from Mr. Brooks? The death of the Anschutz-owned Weekly Standard, a conservative newspaper that has used its pages and influence to criticize Republican President Donald Trump. Brooks doesn’t just go after Anschutz in his gossip column, though, he also sets his sights on one of the media mogul’s deputies, Ryan McKibben, based on “stories about him [that] have circulated around Washington over the years.” Brooks accuses them both of magazine murder, executed by “corporate drones” of the “bureaucratic mind.” (On a personal note, the most interesting place I ever found a copy of The Weekly Standard was in a pile of magazines in a coffeeshop in the spiritual ground zero of Crestone, Colorado.)

A Colorado native runs the ‘northernmost English-language publication in the world’

It’s far away — the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, actually — where Colorado native Mark Sabbatini runs a newspaper called Ice People, which is “the world’s northernmost English-language publication,” according to The Providence Journal in Rhode Island. But running a newspaper is expensive— anywhere— and Sabbatini’s publication is a one-man operation. He’s getting some help, though, from an “11-year-old East Greenwich native with a thing for the Arctic” whose parents took him to Svalbard where he met Sabbatini and is now running a crowd-funding campaign to help financially support Ice People.

So, add one for the what-will-save-journalism file: 11-year-old kids from East Greenwich. May we all find our own and long may they run.

*This roundup appears a little differently as a published version of a weekly e-mailed newsletter about Colorado local news and media. If you’d like to add your e-mail address for the unabridged versions, please subscribe HERE. Image by for Creative Commons on Flickr. Image by Darron Birgenheier for Crative Commons on Flickr.