Sunday, December 9, 2007

Trib goes all I.F. Stone on UnitedHealth

See Update below.

The great thing about daily journalism is that every time you screw up you have a chance to do better, even the next day. Today the Strib goes for a little atonement with a good story about just how UnitedHealth grew and who paid for that growth:
Since 2000, the Minnetonka-based company, an insurer of 70 million Americans, has been sanctioned in nine states for paying claims slowly, shortchanging doctors, hospitals or patients or poorly handling their complaints and appeals, according to a Star Tribune review of regulatory records.
Remember, at the same time that UnitedHealth was shafting doctors and patients, William McGuire was amassing a personal fortune of $1.8 billion:
As regulators uncovered problems with UnitedHealth’s payment practices and customer service, company profits soared to an estimated $4.7 billion this year, up fivefold since 2000.
Musta' been a coinky dink that profits soared as payment practices and customer service tanked, huh? So after the Trib got down on its knees last week in front of UnitedHealth, even as the company was getting some of its due in a court, this is some welcome journalism, and kudos are due to David Shaffer for good, document-based reporting. The story itself doesn't say a lot about the exact documents that were acquired and used in the report, only that they came from "a Star Tribune review of regulatory records." Coulda been a bit less opaque here guys.

It seems, too, the company was maliciously refusing to correct errors:
U.S. District Judge Stephen Limbaugh of Missouri, ruling against the insurer in November 2006, declared its claims processing systems “flawed in many ways, denying, reducing, and improperly processing claims on a regular basis. And despite innumerable requests, United was unwilling to remedy the underlying errors in its systems.”
See, paying patients' claims and doctors on time might reduce profits. As they say in the software trade, the bad actions of the company were a feature, not a bug. And making big profits seems to be the only thing UnitedHealth is good at.

Andy Birkey has more at MinMon.

Update: There's also the possibility that UnitedHealth staged their PR campaign after hearing the Trib was doing a story about them. It is not unlikely that David Shaffer was working on his report for more than a week. If UH did stage their so-called "mea culpa" after inquiries from the Trib it put the paper in an awkward spot. Would the paper bow down to the health care insurance giant and let them manage coverage until their own report was ready?

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