Great health reporting demonstrates the human implications of major policy changes, said Shefali Luthra of The 19th*.
Luthra — who joined the team in July — covers the intersection of women and health care. She previously reported on national health care and policy as a correspondent for Kaiser Health News.
We reached out to Luthra for her top tips on how journalists can cover health policy stories when it’s not typically their job.
One of the big policy stories right now is whether the Supreme Court will vote on the Affordable Care Act. What advice can you give journalists reporting on health care policy when it’s not normally their beat?
Luthra: Health policy stories are complicated but important, and this one is obviously no exception. If you have a health care reporter on your team, ask for advice! That person has probably been following this for a long time, and can help you get a grasp on it. I try to read from a variety of other really smart health care journalists too — including but by no means limited to the work by my former colleagues at Kaiser Health News. (Their weekly podcast, “What The Health” is a helpful primer in general of what’s going on in the health space.) KFF, its parent organization, also has really great resources to better understand the dynamics of the court case and the implications of overturning the ACA.
When writing about the court case, I’d say that it’s good to go beyond just the dynamics of what’s happening in Washington. The details of the court case and the nuances of how the ACA works are critical to get right. But the best health policy journalism looks as well at the human implications of major changes. Who are the people who would be affected if the ACA (either partially or entirely) went away? What are their stories? How might their lives change? Also, talk to people about how they’re navigating health care issues even now — this is an issue that affects all of us, and even just casual conversations with friends and family can be illuminating.
In your opinion, what are some of the bigger policy stories that are getting neglected right now because of COVID?
Luthra: Efforts to address maternal mortality are a big story. Same with financing long-term care. Health care costs — both from the vantage of drug prices and hospital charges — is a tremendous story. These are complex issues with real, visceral consequences for so many Americans, and there is a lot of really great journalism begging to be done.
You recently joined The 19th*. Can you share what it’s been like starting a new job during the pandemic? What are some of the highlights from your reporting since then?
Luthra: In theory, starting a new job without meeting most of my colleagues in person would be exceptionally weird. But in practice, transitioning into The 19th* has been a dream. It’s a very close-knit and collaborative team, and we regularly communicate on Slack and video chat. (We talk about work, of course, but also what TV shows we’re watching, what we’re cooking, our skincare routines, etc.) There’s a really strong sense of mission that drives all of our reporting, and I know it’s pushed me to challenge myself and grow in new ways.
I’ve been really privileged to get time and support from my editors to do some features that illustrate how health policy and the pandemic affect people around the country. My favorites include a deep dive on depression and anxiety increases around the country, and how these conditions are playing out on race and gender lines. There was also a story documenting the fear felt by people who have become pregnant during the pandemic, and one on the experience of home care workers — who are doing essential work, paid little, not guaranteed PPE, and often women who are Black or Latina.
What are some health care resources that journalists can use when reporting on a deadline?
Luthra: The Kaiser Family Foundation is phenomenal. Their website, kff.org, is a really great starting point for good, nonpartisan and comprehensive research and polling on health policy issues. Their experts are super smart, and some of my favorite people to call. I usually check for CDC research, too. There are other websites — big government databases that track hospital payments and drug spending, public worker safety records, etc — but those are probably better for longer-term deep dives.