How Cracking the Code works: Our partners speak

Filed Under: Costs

Our work on Cracking the Code with reporting on and crowdsourcing health prices with partners WVUE FOX 8 Live and NOLA.com I The Times-Picayune was featured recently in an Advance Publications in-house newsletter, “Advance Notice.” We reproduce here the Q-and-A conducted by David Newhouse, Advance Digital editor, in the newsletter sent May 25, with permission from our New Orleans partners.

Advance Publications is the parent of NOLA.com I The Times-Picayune and also of other media properties nationwide, and  the 44th largest privately held company in the United States, according to Forbes. More about Advance Publications here and here and here.

The newsroom had partnered with local TV station WVUE on their Peabody Award-winning Louisiana Purchased investigation. This time, they joined with WVUE and ClearHealthCosts. The response has been strong, with more than 700 responses from readers.

We asked lead reporter Jed Lipinski and project editor Manuel Torres for the details. [Editor’s note: Some examples of our coverage were included here.]

Why did crowdsourcing make sense for this story?

Manuel: Crowdsourcing may be tricky if you seek, say, reports of criminal activity. But we had few reservations trusting what people say they were charged for health care. Our partners at ClearHealthCosts collected 700 prices directly from local providers before the launch, so we had an idea what was out there. We asked readers to upload bills or explanation of benefit (EOB) forms, and many did. As more data came in, patterns emerged that reinforced the veracity of individual entries. We also could remove from the database anything that seemed odd.

Why do you believe in partnerships? Any advice about them?

Manuel: Partnering with WVUE and ClearHealthCosts was a no-brainer. It increased the size of the investigative team. It expanded the reach of pre-launch promotions, crowdsourcing and stories published. It gave us video. And people have come to recognize our joint efforts with WVUE as the serious journalism they are, fulfilling our watchdog mission. Advice? Keep communication open and honest. Start small. Appoint team leaders on each side who work well together and are selfless. And let go of the idea of going it alone. In an era of smaller newsrooms, partnerships are a great way to do big projects.

Was there an educational aspect, alerting readers to the disparity in costs?

Jed: I’ve been repeatedly surprised by how much people know about health care pricing. Almost everyone seems to have had a negative experience with a medical bill. What people were not aware of was the wide variation in cash prices for medical procedures, as hospitals and insurance companies keep those hidden. Launching with a story about cash price differences – e.g. a blood test that costs $522 at a hospital can cost $19 at a lab down the street – was the perfect way to attract readers. We knew people would care about it, and we hoped they would continue reading the series as a result.

How important was the two-step solicit, ahead of the first stories and again with the stories?

Jed: This was the first time I’ve taken that approach in my reporting career, and I found it extremely beneficial. The early solicit produced an embarrassment of riches in the form of outraged emails and phone calls. By continuing to ask readers for feedback with every piece we wrote, we continued to get responses throughout the three-week span of our first round of stories. If another subject lent itself to this approach, I wouldn’t hesitate to use it.

Was it hard getting people to trust you with personal information?

Jed: In the PriceCheck tool (the database) where we encouraged readers to submit their information, we made it clear that users’ email, phone numbers and scanned documents would not be made public. When asking for scanned copies of medical bills, our partner ClearHealthCosts wrote, “It’s OK to hide or black out details like SS number etc.” Most people did that. In emails, patients repeatedly told us they did not want their names to be used. But they showed a remarkable amount of trust that we would honor those requests. In my opinion, this stemmed from the obvious public service quality of the project. People simply wanted to help.

Were you surprised by the response?

Jed: We were surprised by the sheer volume and emotional reaction. We started with 700 prices that ClearHealthCosts collected before launch. Readers have added another 703 prices to our PriceCheck database or via email and phone calls. ClearHealthCosts has said that, compared with their previous partnerships, we’ve reached a much larger audience and broader demographic. And since we began publishing stories, providers themselves have submitted another 2,000 prices to the database. They want to be there now.

Can you imagine other uses for crowdsourcing?

Manuel: We’ve done other crowdsourcing projects, including the Gun Pipeline. We’ve not specifically discussed the next project, but this one clearly showed that asking folks about a common and shared experience – like the cost of going to the doctor – is key.

For more from our series, go to this page describing the Cracking the Code partnership of NOLA.com I The Times-Picayune, WVUE FOX 8 Live and ClearHealthCosts, and cataloging our news coverage. For more on our national partnerships, go to this page.

DID YOU SAVE money with information from ClearHealthCosts or “Cracking the Code?  Tell us by email at info@clearhealthcosts.com or health@fox8live.com.

DO YOU HAVE PRICES to share to help build our community-created guide to health care? Or are you looking for price information?

Click over to our New Orleans PriceCheck interactive software at WVUE Fox 8 Live and at NOLA.com I The Times-Picayune. Search our prices in our New Orleans-focused partnership. For non-New Orleans shares and searches, here’s the search and share page on our national ClearHealthCosts site.

ARE YOU A PROVIDER wishing to share prices?

This page has a sample spreadsheet showing the data that will let us include your prices. Download, fill it out and return to us at info@clearhealthcosts.com or health@fox8live.com.