It sure hasn't been Allina Health System's year. Even its attempts to portray itself in a better light have done nothing but trigger more bad press.
The Minneapolis-based system has been buffeted by an audit by the Minnesota attorney general and the revelation that a federal grand jury is probing allegations made by two whistleblowers. Allina is coming apart at the seams, with the splitting of its hospitals division and Medica, its 1 million-enrollee health plan (See story, p. 4).
Now, local media outlets are reporting that Allina has spent $300,000 on public relations since the audit by state Attorney General Mike Hatch became public in March. The reports said Allina was profiling reporters' personal interests in an attempt to pick the ones most likely to write positive stories about the 18-hospital system.
Rob Longendyke, senior vice president of communications for Allina, confirms the $300,000 figure and the fact that short profiles of reporters were compiled. "We believe that what has been going on in the last several months will have an impact on the face of healthcare in Minnesota," he says. "It will impact healthcare policy. This issue has been displayed in the newspapers. In order to try to get a more rational discussion of those healthcare issues, we made an attempt to get help with our public relations."
Longendyke says some erroneous reports that Allina had spent $500,000 on public relations were "an indication of the inclination to sensationalize this story, which has been extremely high."
As for the profiles, he says, "When you try to bump the story up on a higher level and get the issues discussed, you go to reporters who might be interested in those topics. Every media person I've ever pitched a story to has said, `Know what my publication is and know what I'm looking for.' "
Heal thyself. The high cost of health insurance has affected many small businesses, often forcing them to cut or eliminate benefits just to stay afloat. But you know it's getting bad when a doctors' group can't afford to insure a handful of employees.
That's what happened to the Milwaukee County Medical Society, which represents about 2,000 area physicians in southeastern Wisconsin and recently announced it can no longer operate as an independent organization. Rather than close its doors, the group is merging with the Medical Society of Wisconsin, which as a larger organization is better equipped to absorb growing insurance costs.
"Health insurance has become a significant cost item for any small player," says John Patchett, chief executive officer of the 9,000-member Medical Society of Wisconsin.
The Milwaukee society's five employees will become employees of the state society, which then essentially will lease them back to the local group.
"We're able to save (the society) $160,000 a year," Patchett says. "By doing this, they can retain their independence."
In Detroit's Wayne County and a few other areas around the country, local medical societies have similar arrangements to the one in Wisconsin, Patchett says.
Not CMS yet. Last month, HCFA officially changed its name to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. But some frustrated members of Congress say they won't give the agency a new title until it has earned it.
"I will not recognize the new name until I am convinced that HCFA is a new organization with a new operating philosophy," said Rep. Don Manzullo (R-Ill.), chairman of the House Small Business Committee, in his opening remarks at a hearing on the regulatory morass at CMS.
"Like you, Mr. Chairman, I feel that a new name does not a new agency make," said Donna Christian-Christensen, M.D., a Democratic delegate from the Virgin Islands. "I am awaiting real reform before I really adopt the name of Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services."
Be afraid, be very afraid. Stephen King, the master of the horror novel, is working on a television show about a really spooky hospital.
"The Kingdom," a prime-time series to begin airing in the 2002-2003 season, is based on a Danish TV mini-series that gained a cult following. The best-selling author will serve as executive producer and write most of the initial 15 hours of the series. The plot focuses on a hospital built over an ancient burial ground and on doctors who unwisely reject the idea of mystical powers. Critics have called it a cross between "Twin Peaks" and "ER."
"Stephen has spent no small amount of time in hospitals the last couple of years, and he's had a lot of time to mull over what he would do with that conceit," says Susan Lyne, ABC's executive vice president of movies and miniseries.
King was seriously injured in 1999 when he was hit by a van while walking along a rural Maine road.
Outliers was thinking about asking the American Medical Association for comment on the show, but got stuck on the question. Somehow, asking, "Do you think doctors should accept the idea of mystical healing powers when their hospital is built on an ancient burial ground?" seems a bit far-fetched, even for today's AMA.