The Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, is one of the most divisive political issues in America. So when word began circulating last summer of potential double-digit premium hikes, health care reporter Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar knew he'd have a major story on his hands. With those price hikes would come renewed fears insurers would leave the program.
Looking ahead to the autumn release of the data, Alonso-Zaldivar and data journalism Meghan Hoyer starting laying the groundwork for AP to offer something distinctive, that no other news organization would have. They would be ready in advance to deliver clean, easy-to-use local data so AP state bureaus, as well as members and customers across the country, would be able to provide a local snapshot of how the price hikes were impacting their communities.
The two Washington-based journalists worked with Avalere Health, a consulting firm, to create an easily digestible, county-level look at who would be affected by the price hikes. Hoyer put a framework in place that could quickly be populated with the 2016 marketplace data as soon as it was released. She made a plan to provide state-by-state data to AP bureaus and members and set up a webinar to help interested reporters get a handle on it.
Then the Department of Health and Human Services threw a curveball, releasing the data more than a week ahead of schedule. Undaunted, Hoyer and Alonso-Zaldivar sprung into action, coordinating with Avalere to crunch the data and provide clear documentation to members localizing the story. They rescheduled the webinar and, working through the night, still managed to get a story out on deadline.
At AP's request, the data from Avalere included geographical information and clean, county-level data, which enabled mapping and easier geographical comparisons. Washington interactive produer Kevin Vineys mapped it for a graphic, and charted the participation of major insurers.
Their efforts enabled AP to tell the story in stark terms: Americans shopping for health insurance in the federal marketplace will have less choice in the coming year than at any time since ACA went into effect four years ago.
Their efforts enabled AP to tell the story in stark terms: Americans shopping for health insurance in the federal marketplace will have less choice in the coming year than at any time since ACA went into effect four years ago. According to their analysis, more than 1,000 counties in 26 states will have only a single health marketplace insurer next year. Their story showed how the problem of dwindling choice could prove even more politically tricky than the escalating premiums for insurance. While high premiums can be softened with government subsidies, there's no ready solution for the lack of choice.
The work yielded front-page play in dozens of cities, including Charleston, South Carolina, Jacksonville, Florida, Richmond, Virginia, and Las Vegas. Richmond and Las Vegas each produced local stories using the AP data and webinar, while several other outlets used the materials we provided to drop local context into AP's national story. The Philadelphia Inquirer used the data for two stories — the first time the Inquirer has used an AP data distribution project — and an editor there followed up asking for a heads up every time we make localization data available, saying AP had provided “great data and great explanations.” Hundreds of other outlets, including newspapers, news sites and broadcasters, also used the story.
For delivering a complete package that helped our customers and readers understand how changes in this important program could affect their communities, Hoyer and Alonso-Zaldivar win this week's $300 Best of the States prize.