Archive for August, 2012

Odds stacked against those who can’t afford medical insurance

On my first day as a reporter at The Kentucky  Standard, I was given a suggestion about what one editor thought might be a news brief about a benefit for a Bardstown woman who needed help paying her medical bills. When I learned, however, that Bonnie Varnell, 59, had cancer and had been turned down by insurance companies because of a pre-existing condition unrelated to her illness, I knew it was a bigger story.

Ed and Bonnie Varnell. Photo by Randy Patrick, The Kentucky Standard

I had been looking for an example that would tie in with the debate over health insurance reform, and I had found it.

The story has gotten more attention than anything else I’ve done for the Standard in the short time I’ve been here. Recently, it was picked up by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky, which is led by former Courier-Journal political reporter Al Cross.

Here’s the short version of what was posted on the IRJC’s The Rural Blog. By clicking on the link, you can read the story I wrote. It was published on July 31. (Link: The Rural Blog)

One story of health insurance and health reform, doable in any American community

Here’s a story for every news outlet in the United States, no matter how small or large: Randall Patrick of The Kentucky Standard in Bardstown shows how the federal health-care reform law is having an effect at the individual level by telling the story of Bonnie Varnell, right, a local resident who was uninsured and is more than $65,000 in debt due to her fight against cancer.

For 18 years, Varnell worked at a daycare that didn’t offer health insurance. She wasn’t able to buy individual coverage because she had pre-exisiting conditions as a result of surgeries. She is only 59, so does not qualify for Medicare, and she didn’t qualify for the federal law known as COBRA, which “allows workers to keep their company group health insurance benefits for up to 18 months after leaving their jobs, as long as they pay the entire premium,” Patrick explains.

As a result, the bills kept mounting, despite hospitals giving the Varnells reduced rates through charity care. “I’ve been trying to pay something on every one,” Varnell’s husband Ed said of the bills he receives and has to delay paying in full. “It’s really frustrating. We had never been late a day in our lives.”

Now, Varnell has health insurance through a program created under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. “It costs her $315 a month and covers most of her costs after the deductible is met, but the law stipulates that a person with a pre-existing condition must be uninsured for at least six months before she or he can be eligible,” Patrick explains.

Varnell’s fear now is the program will be taken away if the Affordable Care Act is repealed after the November election. Patrick gives opponents of the law their say. (Read more)

Varnell is among the estimated 15 percent of people in her county who didn’t have health insurance in 2009, the last year for which estimates are available. For the Census Bureau website with estimates for every county, go here.

Telling people’s stories in my new Kentucky home


Charles Kuralt, the CBS newsman who is better remembered for portraying life in small towns than for his war reporting in Vietnam, described community journalism as “relentlessly local.”

I’d go further and say it’s relevantly personal.


Bardstown was recently named The Most Beautiful Small Town in America by Rand McNally and USA Today.

If you want to be good at it, you’ve got to be engaged.

That goes against what they taught us in “j-school.” We were told reporters must be disinterested observers, and we must always be “objective.”

The problem is that there has never been an objective human. It isn’t the way we’re wired.

What’s objective is the method of journalism. Like scientists, we look at the evidence and see where it leads. We don’t bend the facts to fit preconceived notions. We are aware of the baggage we bring with us and are careful about how our biases color the way we see things.

We mustn’t forget that fairness, accuracy and honesty are essential to our credibility and our craft. Without it, we have nothing.

Trust is our stock in trade.

Community journalists, therefore, should be independent — within reason. People should know that our reporting isn’t tainted by business interests or political agendas. But they should also feel that we’re among their own. We should be engaged citizens in the communities we cover.


Charles Kuralt

The rules are slightly different for community newspapers than for metro media. When I was covering the legislature for The Associated Press in Frankfort earlier this year, I would never have accepted a meal or a favor from a lawmaker. But in the 10 years I was the editor of a rural weekly in Nicholasville, I would never have insulted a grandmother by turning down a plate of brownies. It’s a matter of common sense. She wasn’t just my source. She was my neighbor.

I’ve been doing community journalism in little country towns in Kentucky for 30 years, and I’ll probably keep doing it until I get good at it.

A year ago this month, I lost my job as editor of the daily paper in my hometown, where I thought I would work until I retired. But it didn’t turn out that way. Like thousands of other journalists in a media landscape that’s changing at breakneck speed, I didn’t adapt quickly enough.

Fortunately, Jamie Sizemore, publisher of The Kentucky Standard, offered me a good deal: She would give me a temporary job as a reporter, and give me the technical training I needed. In return, the paper could benefit from my experience as a reporter and editor.

Eventually, I want to live closer to my family. For the time being, though, I intend to make Bardstown my home. I could do worse than being a reporter in the Most Beautiful Small Town in America.

So far, I’m enjoying myself. I’ve gotten to cover a Purple Heart medal ceremony for a Vietnam veteran, interview candidates for district judge, take pictures of children returning to school on the first day of classes, cover a Fun on the Farm day camp for 4-H kids, write about how national health issues affect local people and learn something about digital photo editing, pagination and posting stories and pictures to the web.

As my friend, former editor Don White, put it: It sure beats working for a living.

Actually, it’s hard work, but it’s gratifying to know it makes a difference in people’s lives.

I hope she won’t mind if I share this, but after I’d been here a few days, I got a letter from a woman who wanted to thank me for an article about her mother because I “took the time to tell her story” and raise awareness “for others like her.”

Telling people’s stories, raising awareness and getting paid to do it. That’s what community journalism is about. Can there be any better way for a writer to make a living?

August 2012
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