Julie Rovner has been covering health on Capitol Hill for over three decades. Her voice and expert reporting will be familiar to anyone who listens to NPR, where she served as health policy correspondent for 16 years. She is the author of the popular reference guide Health Policy A to Z, now in its third edition, and she continues to cover major health policy issues like the looming repeal of the Affordable Care Act. Rovner sat down with PHP’s Jonathan Gang for a chat about her career and the big stories she sees on the horizon in 2017.
JG: How did you get your start reporting on the healthcare beat?
JR: I was hired at Congressional Quarterly in 1986. I think at the time the beat was health, welfare, and government operations. It was that or transportation and commerce. They chose for me, and I have not looked back since.
When you were first getting started in the field, can you point to any story that you did that you really felt like you had made it?
Yeah! I think it was in 1988 or 1989 after I covered my fourth budget reconciliation bill, I did a big story about how the reconciliation process twists the health policy process because it makes health policy back-fit to meet budget goals, rather than doing health policy for health policy’s sake. It’s a story that has stuck with me through my entire career because it hasn’t changed.
What are some favorite stories you’ve worked on over the years?
I wrote, I think, one of the first big stories about pro-life Democrats. I was covering reproductive health, and it dawned on me that none of these things could ever pass. Why is that when the Democrats control – at this point it was both houses of Congress? It was because a third of the Democrats wouldn’t vote with them on reproductive health! That was 1992. Other than that, there so many, so many stories over the years.
I’m not an investigative reporter. I’m sort of an explanatory kind of reporter. So, my stories aren’t big flashy news, for the most part. They’re mostly helping people understand what’s going on.
What’s your strategy for taking a piece of health care legislation or policy that might be really complicated and putting that into terms that a general audience can understand?
In some ways, it helps that I have a broad institutional memory. So, one of the things I like to do is put it in the context of “has this happened before?” The answer is usually “yes,” or something similar. A lot of the same issues keep coming back.
You have some facility having written about it 150 times. That’s my favorite kind of writing though. Taking complicated things and breaking them down so that people can understand them. It helps that I’ve been doing this for thirty years, so I understand them.
…there’s an art to writing a good abstract about a study. You know, it’s the old “you never get a second chance to make a first impression.” Make your first impression a good one, and then I might go in and dig deeper.
What are your primary sources for what’s going on in health and health policy?
I don’t know if I have primary sources. I read blogs, I read press releases, I read website. I get press releases from lawmakers, from the Department, from the White House, and from interest groups. I go to events. I do read a lot. When I was leaving the health beat at CQ and talking to my successor, I said “if you’re not inherently interested in this topic, it will kill you. But if you are interested, it will be endlessly fascinating.” I’ll find myself sitting around at home sometimes reading Health Affairs articles. After all these years, I still find it interesting.
What can public health researchers or other academics do to make your job easier?
Try to put things in English. I’m pretty skilled in reading academic research but if it’s badly written and I have to slog through it… Please, don’t. I read a press release yesterday that I found interesting but I didn’t end up linking to the study because I was so frustrated. It raised all of these questions that it didn’t answer.
There’s an art to writing a good press release about a study and there’s an art to writing a good abstract about a study. You know, it’s the old “you never get a second chance to make a first impression.” Make your first impression a good one, and then I might go in and dig deeper. Or at least don’t make your first impression a bad one.
With the incoming administration, what are some of the issues and stories that you are focusing on?
The repeal of the Affordable Care Act. And the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. And the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. And also, reproductive health. But everything right now is playing a back seat to the repeal of the Affordable Care Act.
Do you have any insight into how you see that story developing or where you think things are going?
I have no idea! I would guess at this point that things are more fluid than some people are saying. There are a lot of potential hurdles for Republicans. It will not be as easy as they think. I think I tweeted last week that they’re juggling with lit sticks of dynamite here. Can they do it? Maybe. If not, big boom.
What do you think some of the challenges are going to be in reporting on healthcare over the next four to eight years?
I’m a little concerned, particularly that the administration, and perhaps Republicans on Capitol Hill, might just stop talking to the media, or that they’ll only talk to “friendly” media. I’ve covered lots of changes of administration from party to party and I will say that on a bipartisan basis it’s kind of harder to get information out of the department. Every administration seems to try to centralize more and say less. From Bush one to Clinton, Clinton to Bush two, Bush two to Obama, it’s gotten harder every time regardless of party. But I think this particular group of Republicans really, really, really hates media. I’m really concerned about media access.
Feature image courtesy of Julie Rovner.