When NC Blue Cross, through its corporate foundation, became heavily involved underwriting health coverage at a public news organization last year we raised serious questions about the conflicts of interest inherent in such a relationship. Well, this year it looks like NC Blue Cross has changed its focus and for 2009 is underwriting news at a different public news organization – the NC Agency for Public Telecommunications (NCAPT) with studios coincidentally in the state building under the Governor’s staff offices.
Blue Cross has put up $21,600 in 2009 to NCAPT’s OPEN/net policy issues and call-in show “to produce and distribute 12 one–hour OPEN/net programs focused on health care.” In return, “The BCBSNC Foundation will receive sole underwriting credit for the series.”
Once again, NC Blue Cross has quietly made what amounts to an excellent PR bargain. OPEN/net may not be Oprah, but viewership across the state is respectable judging from the calls that come in from Asheville to Wilmington during the call-in segments of the programs. Blue’s association with yet another public news organization gives it credibility in the minds of viewers and an avenue for associating its brand with health care issues other than skyrocketing costs of health insurance policies, large executive salaries and excess profits.
And it would be irresponsible to ignore a potentially more insidious effect of this new relationship. With the best of intentions on every side to cover issues without regard to Blue Cross’s feelings about the matter, the relationship presents at least an appearance of a serious conflict of interest. Questions arise: With NC Blue Cross as the sole sponsor, will there be call-in shows on health reform that highlight Blue’s opposition to competition from a public health care plan option? What about discussion of Blue’s dominant 96.8% market share and deep political connections?
Public news organizations are hard up for money like everyone else, but establishing significant financial relationships with a major player in the health industry to produce public affairs programming focused on that same industry is a mistake. Of course, general corporate support is a fact of life in many of these situations and with many news organizations. But money from industry to cover that same industry clearly crosses the line.