KANE: In health debate, newspapers show their strength



Jonas Kane

There was a series of articles in last week’s editions

of the Patriot-News – the largest newspaper in Central Pennsylvania and one of the state’s top news sources – that reminded me in part of what I’ve always admired about newspapers.

The stories in question concerned laid off employees

from Texas-based Turbine Airfoil Designs in Harrisburg, Pa. Despite having health insurance payments drawn from their paychecks for five months from October 2008 through February 2009, the former employees were told that their health insurance had been retroactively canceled – dating back to Oct. 9, 2008 – because TAD had failed to make good on payments to insurance provider Capital Blue Cross.

Even though their insurance cards still worked and they believed all costs were covered, in March the former employees received bills for all medical costs incurred during this five month stretch.

The most extreme case profiled in the paper detailed the plight of Bill Myers, who, following an operation in February to fix an aortic aneurysm, was left with over $70,000 in health bills. Already mired in such debt from the procedure, Myers has since failed to schedule necessary follow-up appointments

to monitor the success of the operation and has been unable to purchase medications to level his blood pressure and cholesterol.

The front-page report on Myers and the other former TAD workers ran on October 11. Two days later, two separate stories appeared on the incident: one detailed a lawsuit filed by the state attorney general against TAD for failing to pay the health care premiums; the other story reported on a statement from Capital’s CEO pledging that the company would work with the ex-employees to develop a plan to solve the situation.

The case of the TAD debacle

and the stories covering it are important for two primary reasons. First, they highlight the current precariousness of health insurance in the United States.

While TAD may represent an extreme case of a company abandoning its workers, the situation nevertheless shows the unbearable financial burden placed on individuals whose insurance will not cover medical costs.

The United States may have the best health care in the world, but the appalling state of its health insurance industry leaves those without coverage and even many of those seemingly with coverage (who have found their plans retroactively canceled, sort of like the TAD workers, for unknown preexisting

conditions) without the financial means to access it.

Too often, the national debate over health care slips into convenient trigger words that mask the real hardships faced by Americans when their health insurance fails to cover them.

Second, just as important as the content of these stories is their larger journalistic role. News of the TAD situation first broke back in April – though not by reporting from the Patriot-News.

The story was originally picked up by a local CBS affiliate, and only in May did the newspaper first report on the saga. Though a bit slow to pick up on the story, the Patriot-News did recover by running a number of revelatory articles on the topic, culminating in the Sunday front-page coverage.

The Patriot-News is part of an ailing and possibly dying newspaper industry, but its powerful coverage of the TAD story underscores the still prevailing potential of newspapers and journalists to inform the public of important, topical stories and to occasionally influence the course of the news itself.

It’s no coincidence that two days after the front-page stories, significant action was taken by both the attorney general and the insurance company involved. And consider the opposite – without widespread public knowledge and the subsequent potential for public outcry, is it really likely that either party would have taken immediate and seemingly altruistic action?

In the case of this story, the newspaper’s job certainly isn’t finished. It still remains to be seen how much of a financial burden will be left with the former employees and how much culpability will be left with TAD. Also, Capital released a nice statement, but only time will tell if its words are genuine or just a short term ploy to save face.

Having pushed the story to the forefront with its in-depth reporting, it will be the ongoing job of the Patriot-News to keep the public informed of developments in the story. And as citizens of a democratic society, we can only hope that similar good reporting will continue, even as traditional forms of news continue to decline.


Jonas Kane is a senior English and political

science major from Harrisburg, Pa. He can be reached at [email protected].