Propublica – Adam Hodnett

Posted: February 2, 2011 by Adam Hodnett in #3 Propublica

I read the article In Minnesota, Drug Company Reports of Payments to Doctors Arrive Riddled With Mistakes. It’s a part of the Dollars for Docs series.

This is a perfect example of why investigative journalism is needed, and how—if it wouldn’t raise conflicts of interest and ethical issues—the government should be funding this kind of work because it is of huge public interest.

Charles Ornstein and Tracy Weber looked into a new law called the “Physician Payments Sunshine Act,” which requires drug companies and medical device manufacturers to report how much money they give to doctors. A similar law was passed in Minnesota in 1993, so they started their investigation there.

They found that there were many discrepancies in the 2009 reports. The Minnesota official in charge of overseeing the drug companies’ data didn’t know there were problems, and admitted that he wouldn’t have unless someone pointed them out. No one would of known about this had Propublica not funded this investigation.

The published data was also difficult to sort through.  You had to sort through the reports of 80 different companies, all of which dealt with 900 physicians, nurse practitioners, physician assistants and veterinarians. Propublica compiled all this information in to a single searchable database, making it easy to find information on your doctor.

The article is fair. It points out where mistakes are made, but doesn’t necessarily suggest that they were anything more than mistakes. It also provides the argument for why accepting money from drug companies isn’t a problem, and balanced it by explaining how the first law originated in the1990s from patients complaining that doctors were pushing them in to overpriced treatments.

I’m a pro transparency kind of guy and I consider any attempt to conceal facts to be almost criminal. Whether these mistakes were premeditated or not, they show the importance of organizations like Propublica. We need people capable of doing in-depth investigations in to just about every aspect of our society. Journalism seems like the appropriate way to do this—the investigator needs to be independent of the companies and the government.

But how do you pay for it? Propublica doesn’t seem to be running on a very sustainable model. The work is needed, but you can’t rely on hobbyists. Unfortunately, I’m not willing to pay them. Maybe if they were focused on New Brunswick, and somehow able to get enough stories, then I might, but probably not.

I’m surprised to hear that all hope is lost for funding journalism through advertisement. The Super bowl charged over $2.5 million for a 30 second ad. With all the specific information that’s collected from each person that visits a website wouldn’t you think a company looking to attract a specific type of person would be much better off spending their money online? I’m sure you can classify the Propublica follower. It’d be worth quite a bit of money to have an ad for the Canon Rebel on the side of these articles.

I don’t think it’ll be very long before internet ads become far more expensive than television or print ads. But even if advertisement doesn’t keep this kind of work afloat, donations might keep it going. Democracynow.org does run entirely on donation, and so do giant NGOs like Greenpeace and Amnesty. So maybe by the time the money runs out from the Sandler Foundation they’ll have enough loyal followers to get by on generosity.

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