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Finding Stories in Your Local Accountable Care Organization

Finding Stories in Your Local Accountable Care Organization

Picture of Christina Hernandez

I’m proud to have completed and published my National Fellowship project on an innovative healthcare nonprofit in Camden, New Jersey, one of the poorest and most dangerous cities in the country. In the two-part series on the Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers' efforts to cut health care costs, I focus on their efforts with diabetes patients and violence victims.

As a South Jersey native, I was intrigued by the Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers’ efforts to improve healthcare quality and reduce costs in this incredibly troubled city. There was much at stake. Success could mean national accolades and Camden, in the news mostly for its ongoing troubles, becoming a national model of positive change. (As the coalition’s executive director often said: If Camden can do it, then why couldn’t everyone else?) But failure would mean yet another disappointment for city residents who’ve been let down by police layoffs, rampant crime, healthcare disparities, and more.

Soon after I decided to write about the coalition’s efforts, I found out the group was lobbying for the creation of a Medicaid accountable care organization (ACO) in New Jersey that would turn its grant-funded work into a potentially sustainable, long-term initiative. While that was a lucky coincidence for me, other reporters don’t have to rely on chance in order to find burgeoning ACO efforts in their communities.

Reporters looking for ACO projects in their communities should start by visiting the federal website on ACOs and then calling their local healthcare nonprofits. Other resources include local hospitals and other healthcare organizations, which may be affiliated with an ACO. Finally, check with the state’s governing body for ACO legislation. Are there any proposals that would create an ACO in the state? (In the case of the Camden ACO, the New Jersey Legislature had to first pass a law initiating its creation.)

Once you’ve found an ACO in your community, how do you go about telling its story? A good way to start is by explaining and documenting the problem the ACO is trying to solve. (In Camden, the effort was focused on improving healthcare quality while reducing costs for Medicaid patients. My reporting showed the disjointed care many Camden residents received and the overwhelming costs of a disorganized healthcare system.)

The best ACO models will have data showing the severity of the problem. Share that initial data with readers and ask ACO leaders about their goals for moving the needle and improving the statistics.

For background, include information on any previous efforts to solve the problem and what strides had been made and what challenges remain. Find out how the ACO will tackle the core problem-- whether it’s unnecessary hospitalizations, a lack of primary care providers, or overwhelming medical costs -- from a new and different angle. Does your local ACO model its work on any other initiatives? Clearly explain how the new ACO will function, explaining to readers whom the organization will affect and how it will be funded. How much, if any, taxpayer money will fund this initiative? There are many myths related to ACOs, and the federal health reform in general, that a reporter can dispel.

Once you’ve covered the bird's eye view topics of function and funding, it’s time to watch the ACO healthcare providers and patients in action. How does the big idea of the ACO translate to the ground level in a community? (Visiting patients’ homes and driving around Camden with the coalition’s providers were some of the most rewarding reporting I’ve done in a long time. For a freelancer, there’s nothing quite like getting out of the office for boots-on-the-ground reporting.)

Follow the ACO healthcare providers as they minister to patients, getting those telling details that will make their stories come to life. For me, this was where the Fellowship funding helped immensely. Instead of incorporating the first few patients I met into my stories about the coalition, I had time to spend hours and days with coalition staff and meet more than a dozen patients. This helped me provide just the right patient anecdotes to illustrate my stories.

For reference, here are some helpful articles on ACOs:

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