If Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp. often seems to struggle with a poor public image, one reason might lie in its tense relations with the media.
While Columbia adjusts its corporate growth strategy, journalists who cover the company contend it often displays a bunker mentality in dealing with the press. From local newspapers to national television news departments, reporters and editors complain of problems in trying to get information and access to top executives such as Richard Scott, chairman and chief executive officer.
"I have seldom seen a better orchestrated stonewall than that undertaken by Columbia/HCA," says news veteran Mike Wallace, who last fall reported a widely anticipated story on Columbia for CBS-TV's "60 Minutes."
"If they have nothing to hide about the way that they operate, then why in the world would a public corporation stonewall `60 Minutes' or everyone else in the press who wants to talk to Richard Scott?" Wallace asks in an interview with MODERN HEALTHCARE.
Columbia's defensive press strategy existed long before federal agents raided the company's El Paso, Texas, facilities last month looking for evidence of possible criminal and civil law violations in the company's business practices.
Columbia has been whacked by negative media reports; attacked by Rep. Fortney "Pete" Stark (D-Calif.), author of federal healthcare anti-fraud laws; challenged by state attorneys general on proposed deals in California, Michigan and Ohio; and criticized by Wall Street analysts. Journalists complain Columbia's corporate communications staff in Nashville sheds little insight on specific topics and usually is unwilling or unable to provide access to key executives, especially Scott.
"They have no media plan," says Rex Dalton, a medical reporter for the San Diego Union-Tribune.
Dalton, who has more than 20 years of reporting experience, during the past three years covered Columbia's unsuccessful attempt to acquire San Diego-based Sharp HealthCare.
Columbia's public relations staffers take a more favorable view of their relations with the media.
"We think we work very closely with the news media and respond to what we're asked, to the best of our ability and to the best interest of the company," says Eve Hutcherson, a Columbia spokeswoman."Does that mean that our agenda and the agenda of everyone who calls us matches? No."
Some of Columbia's public relations strategies have become stories in themselves.
The most recent episode occurred last month at the Nashville Banner. The newspaper thought it had scored a rare interview with Scott, who had agreed to meet with the publication's editorial board. No Banner reporters or editors had had a major interview with Scott since 1995, shortly after the company moved its headquarters to Nashville from Louisville, Ky.
On the evening before the interview, a Columbia employee phoned the publisher's office, saying Scott had a scheduling conflict.
In Scott's place, Columbia offered Lindy Richardson, senior vice president of marketing and public affairs, and David Manning, vice president for Columbia's Center for Medicaid and Uninsured.
Manning reportedly told the Banner publisher and staff members that people of Scott's caliber, such as "the governor of Tennessee," must have canceled on them before. But Banner Publisher Irby Simpkins says the governor had never canceled such a meeting.
"Rick had a schedule conflict," Richardson says. "He called Irby Simpkins personally to tell him and to apologize."
As Columbia enters new markets across the country, local reporters quickly become frustrated with the company. Often, they turn to Nashville media, hoping to get some insight into the nation's largest for-profit hospital chain.
"Reporters have the universal experience of having difficulty getting what they want from the corporate office," says Tim Tanton, Banner business editor.
The San Diego Union-Tribune's Dalton had such an experience in an attempt to interview Scott at last year's National Association of Children's Hospitals and Related Institutions meeting in La Jolla, Calif.
Several weeks before Scott's speaking engagement, Dalton talked with Blair Sadler, president of San Diego Children's Hospital and Health Center, about Sadler acting as an "intermediary" with Columbia staffers to help arrange the interview.
"For a period of months, I was told the meeting was open and I could go there," Dalton says. "When I arrived, PR people from the national association said Rick Scott and his people refused to allow him to be interviewed by myself or anyone, and that we would be barred if we physically attempted to enter the conference room."
Reporters were, indeed, banned by security personnel. "I showed up at the hotel and there were beefy security guards who wouldn't let us in," Dalton says.
Ira Allen, assistant director of communications for the NACHRI, says: "It was a communication problem on the part of our organization with Columbia. We found out before the event that Scott would prefer it not be public. Rather than cause a problem for our members, who wanted to hear him speak, we decided not to have it open (to the press)."
Allen says the association's meetings are typically open to the press. "I used to be a reporter, and I don't remember being barred from anything except maybe an intelligence committee," he says.
But Richardson says Scott doesn't have time to do as many interviews since Columbia has grown into such a large company.
"Rick shouldn't have to do all of the interviews," Richardson says. "There are a lot of people who would like to do interviews. He can't run a company if he's out talking to reporters all the time."
Not only are these glimpses of Scott puzzling to reporters, they confound even his peers and colleagues.
"Media always managed to find me when I was over there," says R. Clayton McWhorter, former Columbia board chairman and top executive at Healthtrust, a hospital company Columbia acquired in 1995.
"I never was protected," McWhorter says. "It's very important to develop good relationships with the media."
When Thomas Frist Jr., M.D., ran HCA as chief executive, reporters and editors say, he was typically cordial to the press, even at awkward times. "I can remember interrupting Dr. Frist's morning jog one day and he was quite amiable," Tanton says.
Many journalists who cover Columbia, particularly those in Nashville media circles, view Richardson as Scott's primary protector.
Richardson, 50, is considered very loyal to Scott. On the rare occasions Scott does interviews, they often are in a controlled environment with Richardson at his side.
Richardson has been with Scott since 1993. Prior to her current position, she was the company's vice president of marketing and public affairs and served as director of marketing and public affairs for both Galen Health Care and Humana from 1988 to 1993.
Millions of Americans were introduced to Richardson last fall at the end of the "60 Minutes" broadcast on Columbia.
Four days before Columbia saw the "60 Minutes" piece, Richardson, in a letter, accused the program staff of intending to unfairly attack Columbia rather than provide an objective viewpoint. That public relations strategy was too juicy for Wallace to pass up.
He ended the program with a parting shot at Richardson: "Well, Ms. Richardson, we didn't attack you. The attorneys general of Michigan and Ohio did."