Bob Bytes Back Archive: 5/15/1996 Daily distortions (Columbia/HCA Healthcare Story Not In Dispatch)

by Bob Fitrakis

Thomas Jefferson said “Where the press is free, all is safe.” But what happens when the only daily newspaper in a large metropolitan area is a monopoly owned by a super-rich family that sees its mission as systematically distorting the news to protect other plutocrats? You get The Daily Distortion.
A recent mega-distortion and an omission illustrate the type of reporting our own Wolfe Family Newsletter is renowned for. On Friday, the Dispatch placed a small blurb on the business page concerning Columbia/HCA Health Care Corps’ buying of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Ohio. The Cleveland Plain Dealer rightfully placed it on page one.

Columbia/HCA is a $20 billion company that in less than a decade had merged with over 347 hospitals and 125 outpatient centers and home care services. Its president and CEO, Richard Scott, has previously vowed in the pages of the Dispatch to invade Ohio and “…be across the state in every nook and cranny.” Think about it. The Daily Monopoly just buried the unprecedented merger of the country’s largest for-profit hospital corporation and Ohio’s largest non-profit medical insurer. Of course, this is the same paper that put the Rodney King verdict that led to the L.A. riots on page two and Magic Johnson’s AIDS confession in the Sports section.

In a preliminary article, the Plain Dealer noted that the Columbia/HCA deal with Blue Cross was “a move that promises to change the face of health care in Ohio.” Somehow, the Dispatch missed that point. On Friday, the Plain Dealer highlighted the outrageous fact that Columbia/HCA plans to pay Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Ohio’s top three executives $15.5 million dollars; the Dispatch casually mentioned it. The Plain Dealer reported that “Deep in the government filing made yesterday, Columbia said it had options to buy the remaining 15% of Blue Cross business for $1.” The Dispatch failed to note this.

You may be wondering what else they failed to mention. With very little effort, I turned up a variety of information about Columbia/HCA. The best single source is the Cleveland Free Times article of May 6 entitled “Prescription for Profit.” Here’s a partial list of interesting tidbits you won’t read in the Dispatch about the deal:

• State officials in Florida, the U.S. Attorney’s office and the U.S. Justice Department are looking into allegations that executives at one hospital courted by Columbia/HCA undervalued its assets to facilitate the sale in exchange for a big buyout like the one that just occurred in Ohio;
• Policy holders and consumer advocates are already charging that the $299.5 million purchase price is “too low,” and have filed a class-action suit in the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas where they’re represented by former U.S. Senator Howard Metzenbaum;
• The Volunteer Trustee Foundation for Research and Education, which represents non-profit hospital boards, has criticized Columbia/HCA’s pattern of acquiring non-profit facilities by putting up only “a small amount of money” and buying off the chief executives;
• Columbia/HCA not only canceled its advertising in the St. Petersburg Times after the paper ran an editorial questioning its business practices, it also ordered that all copies of Florida’s second-largest newspaper be removed from the hospital’s paper racks;
• Last year when Columbia announced its first purchase of a Ohio non-profit, the Cleveland-based Sisters of Charity of St. Augustine, the entire Sisters board was removed. Robert Rownd, a former board member, claims that Peter Reibold, the president of the Sisters health system, orchestrated the deal for personal enrichment. Reibold now works for Columbia/HCA.

And the list could go on and on. In essence, you’ve got the country’s greediest medical mega-corporation buying up Ohio’s leading non-profit medical insurer by buying off its top executives. Wonder how the Daily Monopoly will report it when Columbia/HCA comes calling next in Columbus?

So, it’s not just twisted and distorted daily news that should concern you, but glaring omissions. On May 1, both the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Cleveland Plain Dealer ran articles on the Ohio Community Reinvestment Project’s statewide report entitled “Little Interest for the Poor.” The study provided an analysis of performance by Ohio banks regarding the yields paid in 1995 on interest on lawyer’s trust accounts (IOLTA) that fund access to legal services for low-income Ohioans.

Under Ohio law, banks are required to pay interest on these accounts that are entrusted to attorneys by their clients. Legal codes of ethics prohibit the attorneys from benefiting from such bank accounts.

The report found that Columbus-based Banc One Corp. and the Huntington National Bank were among the worst in the state, paying only 1.5% net yield to benefit Ohio’s poorest people. Both banks are among the 20 largest in America. By contrast, Commerce National Bank, a smaller community bank in Worthington, is paying a yield to the poor nearly twice that of its much larger rivals. Star Bank of Cincinnati, with numerous central Ohio offices, offered the best yield of 4.8%. Star Bank turned over an outstanding $382,929 on a balance of $7.9 million to help fund critically needed legal services for poor people.

Bill Faith, a spokesperson for the Ohio Community Reinvestment Project, a statewide coalition of groups pushing banks to meet the credit needs of poor and minority people, stated, “With a few notable exceptions, banks are paying paltry interest on these accounts.” Besides Star Bank, Faith also called First National Bank of Ohio, “exemplary.”

Now, what we need is a study rating the major newspapers of Ohio. I suspect I know which one distorts and omits the most vitally needed news.