'Bald-Faced Lies' in Pennsylvania? Scranton Newspaper Distorts ObamaCare's Effect on Catholic Hospitals

The Scranton Times-Tribune on Thursday attacked a conservative organization's radio ad for supposedly spreading "bald-faced lies" about the sale of three Scranton-area Catholic hospitals, and labeled the organization "political hit-and-run artists who pervert the facts." The newspaper's attack-editorial actually glossed over what it had earlier reported on ObamaCare's effect on hospitals and ignored the original words of the hospitals' CEO.

On October 6, WNEP, Scranton's ABC-affiliated TV station, reported that Mercy Health Partners, which owns the three Catholic hospitals, was "already in talks with organizations interested in buying. Mercy Health Partners CEO Kevin Cook acknowledged on-camera that "health care reform was absolutely playing a role. Was it the precipitating factor in this decision? No, but was it a factor in our planning over the next five years? Absolutely."

The radio spot by CatholicVote.org, a political action committee whose statement of beliefs criticizes the "culture of dependency that has been caused by (sometimes well-intentioned but misguided) government programs," highlighted Cook's remark: "Mercy Hospital CEO Kevin Cook said that President Obama's health care law is absolutely playing in role in their decision to close their doors."

An unsigned October 14 editorial in the Times-Tribune, "Health reform can't cure bald-faced lies," attacked the ad: "According to something called CatholicVote.org, Mercy must be sold because Democratic Reps. Chris Carney and Paul Kanjorski sold it down the river when they voted for health-care reform. That notion is preposterous. The attack ad is straight out of the current mold: play on fear; ignore the facts." The editorial didn't once quote from the ad, claimed that there were "many reasons" for the impending sale, and concluded that "political hit-and-run artists who pervert the facts in quest of short-term gain deserve voters' contempt, rather than support."

However, the newspaper seems to be forgetting its own reporting. On October 11, the Times-Tribune's Erin L. Nissley gave supporting evidence to Cook's initial statement by noting that "Medicare and Medicaid make up a large chunk of the money Scranton hospitals receive for treating patients...In 2009, Medicare and medical assistance payments made up...nearly 60 percent of Mercy's net patient revenue." Nissley continued that "hospitals will find themselves under mounting pressure when a piece of health care legislation that changes the payment structure for Medicare payments takes affect. Other portions of health care also place an emphasis on offering increasingly efficient, quality care that might require a significant investment by hospital and health systems."

Also, it may not be that big of a stretch by CatholicVote.org to imply that the hospitals were going to "close their doors" and that the Scranton area was "losing these Catholic hospitals," as they later stated in their ad. Nissley's report also noted that Mercy, along with the city's two non-Catholic hospitals, "have all been struggling to stay solvent. Experts agree it is becoming increasingly unlikely that all three will be able to survive." The reporter quoted from several experts, including Joshua Nemzoff, "a consultant who has managed hundreds of hospital mergers and acquisitions" who stated that "Scranton could get along with one hospital" and that he believed that "Mercy is selling because they do not believe they can remain competitive in Scranton's market."

The Times-Tribune's unsigned editorial even acknowledged the situation on the ground in the middle of their attack on CatholicVote.org: "It has been clear for years that Scranton no longer can sustain three big hospitals. All three have struggled mightily to stay afloat while seeking mergers, affiliations or other arrangements. Everyone involved in this region's health care knows that the economics dictate no more than two hospitals in Scranton. That, possibly, means just one hospital."

But the newspaper, between its editorial and some of its subsequent reporting on the issue, acts like Cook's October 6 statement doesn't exist. On October 13, the day before their attack editorial, a report by Jeremy G. Burton acknowledged that "the controversy began when Mr. Cook told local media, including The Times-Tribune, that health care reform would bring 'financial pressures,' and it 'absolutely' was a factor in his company's long-term planning. Critics of health care reform jumped on Mr. Cook's words, which are featured in the ad by CatholicVote.org. In response, counter-statements were issued by Mr. Cook and Sister Carol Keehan, a White House ally for health reform and the CEO of the Catholic Health Association, which owns Mercy."

Keehan, who was present at ObamaCare's signing into law, claimed in her October 8 statement that "deliberations to sell the facilities began well before the Affordable Care Act became law and did not hinge on enactment of the legislation." Cook toed her line in his statement: "Discussions about mergers, acquisitions and strategic partnerships have been conducted in our health care community for years--long before the passage of the Affordable Care Act. Our decision announced last week was due to many factors....We do, however, continue to be encouraged by the potential of health care reform to improve coverage and access in our country."

The newspaper made a vague reference to these more recent statements in an October 16 article by Michael J. Rudolf, but omitted Cook's October 6 remark: "Earlier this week, Mercy Health Partners CEO Kevin Cook said Mercy was forced to consider a sale after numerous failures to consolidate, merge or adapt Northeast Pennsylvania's health care system for the community's 21st century challenges, and that national health care reform played virtually no part in the decision."

"Played virtually no part in the decision"? How does this square with what the Times-Tribune itself reported on October 13? Perhaps the newspaper is too busy attacking opponents of ObamaCare to do some basic journalism and confronting Cook about his conflicting statements.

Matthew Balan
Matthew Balan
Matthew Balan is a news analyst at Media Research Center