How an AP reporter found $50 billion buried in federal fine print

Ricardo Alonso-Zalvidar

Ricardo Alonso-Zalvidar

In the “Beat of the Week” memos to staff, AP Senior Managing Editor for U.S. News Mike Oreskes tells the stories behind the top news of recent days. In his latest note, he lauds the persistent, meticulous reporting of Washington-based health care reporter Ricardo Alonso-Zalvidar, who also is advising AP reporters across the country in covering the rollout of the Affordable Care Act:

Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar has covered health care policy for the AP since 2009, dominating with beat after beat after beat. He has won the respect of colleagues and competitors. He has produced ground breaking policy coverage, a model of the genre, and has been cited here 11 times with honorable mention for work that impressed the Beat of the Week judges.

But for all that, he has never won Beat of the Week.

Finally, his persistence paid off.

Alonso-Zaldivar was studying the fine print (something he does) for the Department of Health and Human Services budget proposal when one number jumped out: a projected $50 billion in new Medicare revenue over the coming decade. That was up from last year’s projection of $28 billion. When Alonso-Zaldivar asked why, neither the White House for its Office of Management and Budget had an answer.

He wrote a spot story pointedly noting the murkiness of the administration’s plans, while at the same time agitating with HHS for an explanation.

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Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, April 12, 2013, before the House Ways and Means Committee hearing on President Barack Obama’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2014, and the HHS. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Two days later, congressional Republicans challenged HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on the same points, and she gave a partial answer: The administration was planning to set up a new way to determine how much seniors pay in Medicare premiums, based on their incomes. It would clearly mean a cost increase for many beneficiaries, but there were no details about who, or how much.

Alonso-Zaldivar seized the opportunity to press his point again, telling his HHS contacts that he planned to put Sebelius’ incomplete answer on the wire.

One of those contacts soon popped a detailed data table into his email inbox, spelling out the details the administration had been reluctant to share. He was able to report exclusively that President Barack Obama’s new budget included a proposal to significantly increase the amounts paid by upper-income retirees in Medicare premiums.

AP was alone with the story throughout the weekend. Even the House Ways and Means Committee, which had challenged Sebelius for answers, read it first in Alonso-Zaldivar’s exclusive.

The story made scores of front pages, including the Philadelphia Inquirer, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Louisville Courier Journal, Jackson Clarion Ledger, Providence Journal, Fort Worth Star-Telegram and St. Louis Post-Dispatch. It was the lead story in a dozen papers. A follow-up humanized the proposal with the tale of a New Mexico retiree who has an income of $85,000 and would be hit by the increases, and felt penalized for her frugal retirement planning.

None of this was unusual for Alonso-Zaldivar, one of the relatively few people in Washington who has read the entire health care legislation, all 974 pages.

For this persistence and attention to detail, Alonso-Zaldivar wins this week’s $500 prize, his first Beat of the Week, recognition long overdue and now rectified.