Sunday, November 1, 2009

Carilion: And The Times Beat (Down) Goes On

The Roanoke Times' absolute obsession with hammering Carilion Clinic, regardless of what Carilion does, reached Biblical proportions with this morning. This edition of the paper's lead story--by reporter Laurence Hammack--tells us about efforts to help poor people in terms that make the organization look far worse than Scrooge.

Carilion, says the story, has reduced efforts to collect bad debt against the poor by 76 percent and increased the money it spent on those same people to $51 million during the past fiscal year. The first person quoted in the story was not a Carilion spokesman or executive or patient, but one David Beidler of the Legal Aid Society who responded with a snarky, "Maybe their sense of charity has expanded broadly enough to include not seeking judgments against people who clearly cannot afford to pay them." There is no immediate counter to that charge.

As we read on, however, we find only Carilion PR man Eric Earnhart quoted in its behalf, and then only by e-mail. Earnhart's explanation includes some pretty sound reasoning, if I read it correctly: poor people are asked to fill out paperwork that will qualify them for charity care and if they don't, they are treated as if they have enough money to take care of the bill. Since Carilion is not in the business of clairvoyance, that does not seem unreasonable to me.

A good friend of mine, in fact, has been sued by Carilion. This friend, whose writing career has hit a large speedbump would be classified as poor by just about anybody. He didn't fill out the paperwork for free care, though, and was sued when he couldn't pay. He took responsibility for that. "It wasn't their fault that I didn't comply," he said.

Late in the story, there is an explanation that Carilion's $51 million in charity care expenditure compares to $7.9 million locally at Lewis-Gale Medical Center--part of HCA, which is a huge national organization. Nothing else is mentioned about the comparison.

The paper boils down the reason for Carilion's policy change thusly: it's afraid of bad press.

The story catalogs The Times' own incessant harranging of Carilion, often over niggling matters, and even throws in that god-awful non-event that Rupert Murdoch's Wall Street Journal engaged in a year ago. As the story winds down, a woman who specializes in helping patients with medical bills, Pat Palmer of Salem (who is brought in out of nowhere), is quoted as explaining the whole thing succinctly: "They have just been bombarded with bad press for a while and that's one way for them to try to ease it up." I gather from that, Ms. Palmer is an expert not only on medical bills, but also on the impact of press coverage. The story does not say where she earned that credential.
None of this could possibly have anything to do with Carilion doing something because it's the right thing to do, though, right? Naaaaah. Not that.


  1. Dan
    Congratulations! Your advertising buget for the Blue Ridge Business Journal is now secure.
    Go to and search carilion and the Roanoke Times. See what the Columbia Journalism Review, the most respected journalism watchdog in the world, had to say about the relationship between the Roanoke times and Carilion.
    The RT was caught doing the same thing you are doing....sucking up to a predatory monopoly in hopes of garnishing the almighty advertising dollar.
    I suppose that when the FTC caught Carilion planning to mark up MRI's by 900% the RT was supposed to bury the story the way you did.
    Carilion has put liens on 33,000 homes in the past five years. Do you think that is right?
    Carilion has bought or put out of business nearly all of the tax paying independent doctors in Roanoke while they remain tax exempt. Where do you think the lost tax revenue is going to come from?
    It is impossible to get objective media in this town as long as Carilion is dishing out the advertising money.

  2. I have no idea who the anonymous "terps" is, so I can't address this directly. To say that our advertising budget has anything to do with my personal feeling that the RT is hammering away mercilessly at an excellent corporate citizen--simply because it can--is to ignore what's been going on for the past two years and to not know me. Some of you think that money is the only motivator worth pursuing. Bullshit! As the RT's own story pointed out, the poor have the opportunity to simply say they're poor in order to get subsidized or free care. That's not a lot to ask. If Carilion doesn't collect its bills it goes out of business. Where do the poor go then for care? HCA? Probably not, I'd say. And I doubt you'd want to pay for it with higher taxes. I think it is time to understand that solid business practices by a non-profit is a legitimate expression of capitalism and that the good people running the show at Carilion deserve quite a bit better than they're getting from the RT.

  3. Dan
    You must be aware that Carilion gets a 50 million dollar tax break because they are "not for profit." Lewis Gale pays full taxes and STILL does 7 million in charity care.
    I want the tax money AND I want Carilion to be a good corporate citizen.

  4. Gentlemen,
    The Roanoke Times has for years taken the side of Carilion. This only changed after the Wall Street Journal came to town. Dan's criticism of Ms. Plamer is unfair. Carilion's decision to change its radical financial policy was the right one, albiet late and after much bad press.
    As the largest employer in the valley, we should expect better from Carilion. We should expect noting less from RT than hard nosed journalism. I am a big fan of yours, bur Terp is right on this one, Dan.

  5. RT Fan: I am a fan of hard-nosed journalism, as well. Cheap shots consistently against what I consider one of the best corporate citizens in the region? Not so much.