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Good news: a tough assignment

By David Gulliver
4/9/2009 © Health News Florida

A friend of mine, a psychologist, counsels a number of older clients for depression. Lately, she has been hearing a common complaint: “I just can’t stand reading the news anymore.”

She called me after one such session the other day. “Why isn’t there any good news, Dave?” she asked me.

I gave her the usual answer reporters give: It’s not news when the plane lands safely. Good stories, the ones people read, hinge on real people resolving a crisis -- pretty much the opposite of good news.

But by chance, her call came as I was working on a “good news” story that should have been easy. Some 568 state workers and teams had won awards for innovative programs that improved services and saved money.

The awards’ sponsor, Florida TaxWatch Inc., usually holds off announcing the winners until the awards dinner in May, but my editor found out that four of the big winners were employees of health agencies. She thought it would be a great idea to give recognition to creative and entrepreneurial state workers. We figured, four phone calls and a day’s work.

Guess again.

One winner was my hometown Sarasota County Health Department, so it was easy to get to the right person. Their winning project countered the usual snark about government and efficiency.

By adopting physician practice-management techniques used in the private sector, the agency handled 19 percent more patients with the existing staff, cut costs 7 percent and increased collections 27 percent.

You fell asleep by the second percentage, didn’t you? Impressive, sure, but there’s little drama in balancing the books. There’s a reason they don’t make movies about accounting. I kept looking.

In the Jacksonville area, a partnership was rewriting the book on how to resolve child abuse and neglect.

The Department of Children and Family Services and Family Support Services of North Florida, drawing on the latest research, is doing everything possible to avoid putting kids in foster care.

Instead, they wrap the children and families in a cocoon of services and case workers. By keeping 1,300 children out of foster care, they saved $7.1 million and won a prestigious $400,000 grant from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
Saving troubled kids -- sounds like a story waiting to be told. And an 8:30 a.m. phone call found the program’s director at his desk. For a reporter, that’s a dream. But for the person getting the call from the reporter, that’s usually a nightmare.

He nervously but politely deferred to a DCF spokesman, who was prompt, well-versed, on message and generally helpful, but just as wary.

Why? Well, for one reason, generations of reporters have -- often with cause -- crucified child protective agencies for leaving kids in danger for too long. For another, talking about a case in any detail is a triple threat for violating privacy laws: The subjects are minors, it likely involves health records and it may involve sexual abuse.

No people means no human face, no voice, no story. Again I kept looking. But with the next winner, I should have known better.

The award went to the general counsel’s office at Department of Children and Families. If an official DCF spokesman watches his words, imagine the department’s lawyer. Two of them, in fact -- I suspect one was there to keep the other from saying the wrong thing.

Again, they were expert, polite, patient with my dumb questions, and proud of a good program. DCF tries to avoid dragging out lawsuits against the department and instead gets services to the plaintiffs. They estimate saving $41 million so far.

But courtroom dramas hinge on speeches and surprise witnesses, not amicable settlements.

Luckily, there was Lake County. The health department worked with a local hospital to reduce the tide of young mothers showing up to deliver with no prenatal care. They used government-paid midwives and doctors to deliver low-cost care and resolve the liability issues that plague private-practice OB/GYNs.

Still, it was tough to make the story dramatic. The program is seven years old, and none of the original doctors or midwives were still there. And we still had health-privacy issues. But they agreed to outline the case of a 15-year-old mother. And the father in me knows there’s no drama like a troubled pregnancy.

For a minute, turn these stories around. If a county agency runs deep in the red, there are audit reports and outraged politicians. If an abusive parent hurts a child under an agency’s watch, there are ambulances, police reports, angry children’s advocates and stunned neighbors. Reports pile up, people talk. But when things go well, there are no adversaries. People keep quiet. And if a reporter does call, they fear the usual -- the worst.

Three days, a dozen phone interviews and three drafts later, we had our “good news” story. And to my psychologist friend: That’s why there’s so little good news in the paper.