Votes and dollar signs, cancer cure-rate claims, present at the euro’s creation

By Steven Brill
June 19, 2012

1. Pinning the $ on the politicians:

Much of the press covering the testimony of Jamie Dimon, JPMorgan’s CEO, before the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs last week about his bank’s $3 billion trading loss said Dimon got off easy. Some accounts, like this one in Politico cited a money connection: Dimon, Politico reported, “fielded mostly softball questions from a panel of senators who’ve taken thousands of dollars in contributions from his firm.”

Pointing out the money connection makes sense, but I wish the press would take the trouble to give us more. Why not put a parenthetical next to any senator who is mentioned in an article like this, detailing how much money he or she got from Dimon or JPMorgan-associated PACs in the last five years?

As in “said Tennessee Republican Bob Corker ($64,000)”?

Or: “explained Democrat and committee chair Tim Johnson of South Dakota ($38,995).”

There are several sources, such as Open Secrets.org, run by the Center for Responsive Politics, where this information can be gathered quickly, and from which I gathered these real Corker and Johnson JPMorgan-linked dollar tallies in about two minutes.

In fact, at a time when most Americans are appalled at the role money plays in politics, why not take advantage of these databases and post the dollar tallies whenever any politician is written about as taking one position or another on an issue? As a standard form, just have a parenthetical that reports the amount of contributions received from interests on one side or the other of the issue the senator or congressman (or maybe even a state legislator) is depicted in the article as addressing.

There could be a note added if the contribution was from an interest whose side the politician didn’t appear to take, and an additional note if he or she took money from both sides.

And if the newspaper or website lists the actual votes of legislators, why not put the same parenthetical dollar sign next to each vote?

At major news organizations, compiling this information – linking politicians and money from major interest groups, businesses and unions so that reporters covering these stories would have it at the ready – seems like a great job for a summer intern.

Would all these parenthetical dollar signs next to the names of our elected officials look smarmy? You bet. That would be the point.

2. Cancer Treatment Centers of America: Leading the way, or luring the vulnerable?

The Cancer Treatment Centers of America (CTCA) has been running a ubiquitous ad campaign pitching its hospitals as the best answer to the health crisis facing families that have been suddenly confronted with a C-word diagnosis.

Its website – featuring “Care That Never Quits” as a registered trademark and describing a network of “all-digital” hospitals, whatever that means – boasts on its “results” page a slew of impressive cure rates: for example, 88 percent for breast cancer detected within one year, versus a national average cure rate (according to the National Institutes of Health, the website says) of 60 percent. Or 30 percent versus 11 percent for pancreatic cancer.

Is that true? If it’s not true, or if the statistics are spun deceptively to CTCA’s advantage, what are the rules, if any, governing that?

The one relatively recent news clip I found about the company (at least, I think it’s a for-profit company) says that it features flat fees for treatment of major cancer types, such as $10,000 for prostate cancer and $14,500 for lung cancer.

That’s right: flat, manageable fees instead of the usual pile-it-on fee-for-service regime that is bankrupting patients and taxpayers. Plus, high cure rates. And thrilled patients, as evidenced by the testimonials that fill the website. If that’s all real, this could be a great story about a breakthrough in healthcare.

Another thread found in a Google search pointed me to a blog article saying that Cancer Treatment Centers of America founder Richard J. Stephenson is a member of the board of FreedomWorks, the conservative organization that helped propel the Tea Party, and that he is also the president of International Capital and Management, “an organization specializing in making hospitals more efficient and cost-effective.” A subhead in the same blog post says that in 1996 “CTCA Settled With FTC After Allegations Of Making ‘False and Unsubstantiated Claims’ About Treatments.” The blog’s link to an FTC press release appears to substantiate this account.

Again, if CTCA has truly cleaned up its act since then, that’s a story worth telling, especially given the prominence of its ad campaign. However, given the desperate mindset of people who are most likely to respond to those ads or other promotions, or come to this website, if some of its promises and success stories are not true, we need to know that, too. And either way, I’d love to know who the investors are behind this increasingly visible healthcare venture.

3. The European Union: What were they thinking?

Maybe it’s just me, but I remain confused about what political leaders and economic officials in Europe were thinking about their inconsistent economies and approaches to fiscal policy when they introduced the European Union’s common currency in 1999. How, if at all, did they address the possibility that some of the member countries would be so fiscally irresponsible (or economically challenged, depending on your view) that in a broad recession they could drag every other country down unless the strongest – in this case Germany – chipped in billions of its taxpayers’ money to rescue even the most recalcitrant of the weakest?

Can’t some smart newspaper or magazine (or maybe 60 Minutes or CNBC) go back to 1999 and tell us how these potential problems were discussed and who convinced everyone else not to worry.

With the euro crisis in mind and as an offshoot to the stories like this one over the weekend about banks holding “fire drills” to deal with the outcome of the Greek elections, I bet that last weekend there were also a half-dozen or so lawyers scattered at elite firms across the world whose arcane specialty is, or has become, currency provisions in loan documents and similar contracts. It would be fun to see a story of how they worked through the weekend huddling with hundreds of jittery clients, proving once again that even the worst events produce economic winners (usually the lawyers). Who are they? And who came up with the most creative potential solutions for clients worried about being stuck with drachmas?

PHOTO: JP Morgan Chase and Company CEO Jamie Dimon gestures during the U.S. Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee hearing on “A Breakdown in Risk Management: What Went Wrong at JPMorgan Chase?” on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 13, 2012. REUTERS/Larry Downing

7 comments

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Regarding the cancer treatment centers. First, the cure rates cited are not defined by type and stage of the disease. Most breast cancers diagnosed by mammography for example are local and curable. Statistic often include in-situ lesions which are never metastatic and cured with lumpectomy and radiation. They are manipulating the types of patient included to show their “superior” outcomes which I can say without fear are bogus.

Similarly their charges are undefined. Are they costs for doctor’s visits? surgeon’s fees? hospitalizations? clinic facility fees? and for how long–per month? quarter? year? What else do they include–drugs? radiation? ancillary services. I’d bet they only cover a small proportion of what’s provided. Furthermore their “flat rate” will not at all reflect what they bill your insurer. You get the idea.

They are a commercial venture interested more in income and profit rather than cost containment.

Posted by Cycledoc2 | Report as abusive

interesting points and I agree 100%

Posted by zotdoc | Report as abusive

Great column.
I wonder why no financial reporters have gone back to determine the names of the individuals and the banks they represented that facilitated Greece’s fraudulent application to the EU by creating expensive financial instruments to hide Greece’s actual debt?
It’s not too hard to believe that Goldman Sachs or JP Morgan made real money helping the Greek “public servants” and elected officials through that process. Our banks made real profits there.
Wonder how many Greek “public servants” involved in the activity got rewarded by these same big US banks?
It’s no wonder Members of Congress don’t ask Jamie Dimon any hard questions. He holds their future earnings in his hands.

Posted by ClearwaterTim | Report as abusive

On point 3, they took their cue from the Founding Fathers and did not address the issue of a member defaulting. Is the US committed to cover financial mismanagement in the 50 states forever…? Is there a federal guarantee of California debt…?

Posted by graziella | Report as abusive

Mr. Brill:

Thank you for highlighting Cancer Treatment Centers of America as one of the stories you’d most like to see. At CTCA, our first priority is our patients.

We would be honored to have you or anyone else interested in CTCA as our guests at one of our regional hospitals, where you can learn first-hand about how our doctors, clinicians and patients are changing the face of cancer care. There’s a reason our Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems (HCAHPS) scores are among the highest of any hospital and that our patients and their caregivers become our greatest advocates.

For the record, there are a couple of points here that need clarification:

- Where you mention “cure rates,” what we actually measure and show on our website is Survival Rates. They’re also not the only statistic, we measure and display: Quality of Life, Patient Experience and Speed of care — all clearly laid out on CancerCenter.com.

- The “flat fee” you discuss is not a flat fee for treatment; it is a single, fully inclusive price for a comprehensive evaluation and treatment plan. The actual cost and course of treatment are different for every patient and every cancer. Our innovative CareEdge program offers a complete evaluation and treatment plan in five days or less through a process convenient for the patient.

As I mentioned above, CTCA’s story — from our founding to our Patient Empowered Care model and our vision for quality-based, patent-centered cancer care — is well worth your attention. We’d be pleased to welcome you for a visit at your convenience. We look forward to speaking with you and can be reached at (847) 342-6471.

Andrew Welhouse – Public Affairs Manager, CTCA

Posted by AndrewWelhouse | Report as abusive

Dear Mr. Wellhouse:

Thank you for your thoughtful letter and for the clarifications.

You’re right: using “cure” instead of “survival rates” was sloppy.

I should add that clarification seems to be an apt word — because your literature and your own statement about the flat rates is hardly clear. When I read that you charge a flat fee “for a comprehensive evaluation and treatment plan” I assumed that the “plan” was the treatment. Are you really saying that you charge $10,000 or $15,000 simply to tell me what kind of cancer I have and how you propose to treat it?

As for you gracious invitation, which is tempting, I’m afraid I have a day job and am not writing in depth pieces at the moment. Rather, this column is the best of all journalism assignments: I simply suggest work that others can do!

Best regards,

Steven Brill

Posted by jledbet | Report as abusive

Column too long. Short paragraphs for each would work better.

Dimon hearing is a total waste of time and money.

If CTCA advertising is an issue; investigate, gather facts; analyze; then report.

European Union is a failure. France wants to be in charge at Germany’s expense. Germany wants to be in charge and hopes to buy it. Most of the rest are thieves trying to leach off Germany. Bunch of idiots.

The above in the article in a nutshell, all a reader needs.

Censorship is evil.

Posted by ALLSOLUTIONS | Report as abusive