CNBC reporter Bertha Coombs spoke with Opportunist’s Managing Editor Leslie Stone about her coverage of the Affordable Care Act, her toughest career lesson and why she finally accepts that it’s OK not to be perfect at everything.
Bertha Coombs has a front-row seat to current events. As a general assignment reporter for CNBC during the last 12 years, she has covered financial markets and business news stories ranging from the spying scandal on Hewlett-Packard’s board and the criminal trial of Beanie Baby creator and former Tyco CEO Dennis Kozlowski to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill.
“What I love about my job is that I’m always talking to interesting people and I get to learn new things and be at places I would never be,” she says. “It has been such a privilege for a Cuban immigrant girl like me—and as someone who loves history—to stand in front of Congress or to be on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol and see news unfolding. I still pinch myself and say ‘Wow!’”
Her most recent assignment is coverage of the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare. Viewed as complex or even controversial by many, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act—the statute’s official name—has sparked ongoing national debate ever since it was signed into law by Pres. Obama on March 23, 2010. Coombs, however, was more than happy to take it on. “I am very passionate about health care. It’s so difficult for so many people and so complex that if I can play any part in trying to shed a little bit of light in helping people decipher it I will feel I have accomplished something. If we can see modernization in health care and start taking better care of ourselves as a result, it would be better for everyone instead of spending money on curing our ills. That’s why it’s fascinating to me.”
Opportunist: For those who don’t know, what does the Affordable Care Act mean for the average American?
Bertha Coombs: What it means is, if you can afford it any way, you need to have insurance coverage, or risk paying a fine. The Affordable Care Act is intended to give the average American an opportunity to find quality, affordable coverage. Insurers won’t be able to deny coverage or charge higher rates due to preexisting conditions. For some people that alone has resulted in more affordable premiums. And if you are in a lower to middle income bracket making between $15,000 and $45,000 as an individual you will qualify for a subsidy to offset the cost. But individuals who earn more and don’t qualify for tax credits may find that new Obamacare insurance requirements are more expensive for them. This isn’t a one-size-fits-all plan because that’s not the way the market works. Sometimes it can vary from county to county. It depends on many variables, such as the supply of doctors and the demographics of people who live there. At the end of the day, there are still big variations in the individual market depending on where you live.
Opportunist: The U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services announced just last week that 5 million people have signed up so far.
Bertha Coombs: That is the number of people who have signed up but you cannot take those numbers at face value. What’s important is how many people actually convert and pay their premiums. Things seem to be working fairly well but the back end is still problematic. Making sure the correct data gets to the insurer and that everything can be processed in time will be a challenge. After the big surge at the end of December, it took some time to get that data sorted out correctly. They didn’t tackle building that part of the system and so a lot of that is getting done in a more manual way. The expectation is that about 85 to 90 percent will actually go ahead and convert and continue to pay.
Opportunist: Who is required to sign up for coverage?
Bertha Coombs: American citizens between 18 and 64 years of age who have an income and who aren’t offered insurance through an employer or who are self-employed.
Opportunist: What about Medicaid recipients?
Bertha Coombs: As a rule Medicaid recipients do not have a deadline to sign up for coverage, but qualifying for new Medicaid options, again, depends on what state you are in. Half of the states have opted for Medicaid expansion allowing people earning up to 140 percent of poverty level to receive Medicaid benefits. Some states are still debating expansion, but it hasn’t been adopted in some big states like Florida, Texas or Louisiana at this point.
Opportunist: Is there a penalty for not signing up?
Bertha Coombs: If you don’t have it for at least three months then you would pay a fine the following year when you file your taxes. The fine can be as low as $95 or 1 percent of your income and that number will go up year after year.
Opportunist: What if you miss the March 31 deadline?
Bertha Coombs: If you don’t have insurance coverage and don’t qualify for Medicaid or Medicare you will not be able to get insurance unless you have a qualifying event. It’s the same as if you were trying to lock in to your employer’s health insurance plan and then experience a life event such as having a child or getting married. Some analysts feel the timing would be better if it coincided with the filing of tax returns, and they would like to see the enrollment period extended until April 15, but that remains to be seen.
Opportunist: Why are there so many Obamacare detractors?
Bertha Coombs: It’s disruptive. It’s causing changes. No one anticipated how horrible a debut it would be on so many fronts. People who were committed to buying insurance and were happy with the way things were now feel they were sold a bill of goods when they were told they could keep their plan. And in some cases Obamacare has become the default excuse for any unpopular change with insurance. Last fall I started joking whenever anything went wrong, ‘Well, we could blame Obamacare.’ [Laughs] There are plenty of companies hiding behind health reform changes. Even if they were already cutting coverage for spouses or families, for example, they will say it’s because of Obamacare. Any time you have disruptive change, particularly when it wasn’t done on a bipartisan level, there will be people who are going to be against it. We have such a fractious political environment. People feel the government is imposing health care on them, but many times they were already buying it.
But the thing to remember is that government health care plans are always controversial. Even Medicare was decried by some early on as socialized medicine. Now, it’s one of those things we take for granted and expect to have access to when we get older.
Opportunist: So what happens after Pres. Obama leaves office and a new administration takes the reigns?
Bertha Coombs: I may be naïve but the stakeholders—insurers, hospitals and other providers, not to mention people who bought these plans—are already involved. It’s going to be very hard to turn this ship around. People who are worried this will be another entitlement plan that we won’t be able to afford down the road could certainly look at Medicare the same way. And good luck getting rid of Medicare. Can we have reform? Yes, but it’s so difficult. Even if politicians weren’t bickering on a partisan level, regulators and legislators in D.C. are going to have to make hard choices and come up with the right mix of policies to ensure these programs are sustainable.
Opportunist: You recently reported an uptick in health care IPOs. What is triggering that?
Bertha Coombs: Investors have been bullish about the health care sector in general. But there are also a number of new technology companies that are trying to harness the health care infrastructure to bring new efficiencies and help people navigate Obamacare. One example is the IT firm Castlight Health [NYSE: CSLT], which just went public the other day with a valuation of more than $1 billion. Castlight specializes in pricing transparency software and created an app that helps self-insured companies like Walmart, Microsoft, Honeywell and Tesla manage health care costs through tools that let employees shop for the best prices for medical care. I heard about one trucking company that made the app available to its fleet and one of its truckers used it to find an imaging center that was open when he needed it and it cost him less than $100. Lots of companies are trying to address some of these issues in the same way we saw years ago with Expedia changing the way we book travel or Amazon changing the way we bought books and other merchandise.
Opportunist: What attracted you to a career in broadcast journalism?
Bertha Coombs: My family is originally from Cuba. We settled in Boston, where I grew up, and we watched the evening news as a family at the dinner table every night. Then we would discuss it. I’ve often joked that my career choices have involved choosing the very thing that I didn’t think I would do. [Laughs] I always thought I would go to Harvard but by high school Yale seemed a more interesting place to be. So I went to Yale and majored in history. I liked government and public affairs and considered becoming a lawyer, but I didn’t really want to go to law school and become the umpteenth person with a law degree. While working on a political campaign I thought the reporters had more fun than the rest of us, so I applied for a reporter training program. I worked in local general news in New York City, Miami and Hartford, Conn., before switching over to business news in early 2000. It was around March 9 or 10, just as the Nasdaq stock exchange started hitting its all-time high. What timing! That was ironic too because, although I had friends who worked on Wall Street, I always felt I knew nothing about stocks and I did not want to do math. [Laughs]
Opportunist: Is it ever a challenge for you to maintain neutrality?
Bertha Coombs: Not really because I am a person who can usually see both sides. I find it frustrating when people keep repeating a talking point or kind of go for their one headline without seeing the nuances. It’s frustrating to watch people dig in their heels and refuse to compromise or get beyond partisanship, to our detriment as a nation. The shutdown of the government and the brinkmanship that occurred has not been helpful. The intransigence and unwillingness to concede that there might be a middle ground is what frustrates me the most because that makes it hard to have a discussion and, ultimately, find a solution.
Opportunist: What do you foresee being the biggest news stories of 2014?
Bertha Coombs: Obamacare will continue to play a role but I don’t know that it will be as big. I think the midterm elections in November will be a big story. That always impacts financial news. Although we’ve started the year off with real nervousness about emerging markets, the story might be the United States this year in the sense that we seem to be kind of chugging along. It’s not great growth—it’s slow growth—but I think if we continue to see hiring it sort of begets more hiring. Stability could be the big surprise. After some really rollicking years we might be due.
Opportunist: We understand CNBC is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. How has news coverage changed since the network launched?
Bertha Coombs: CNBC has had an amazing evolution and it’s quite amazing that it has been around 25 years. I have probably watched 20 years of it, beginning with “Steals and Deals” back in the 1990s, but as a business journalist it has always been the network to watch to keep up with the newsmakers. I think technology has made such a difference. What did reporters do before computers? [Laughs] I cannot imagine what it would have been like to talk about a stock with a static chart that you drew or to wait for the ticker tape to see the price. How did they have any transparency? It’s amazing to imagine what it will be like in another 10 years. I remember as recently as 2000 everyone was wondering whether Palm, Handspring or Blackberry would be the big winner to converge everything onto one handset. I can remember reporting on that from the Nasdaq. They are all gone now except Blackberry—and I will cling to my Blackberry until I die. [Laughs] It’s hard to imagine what that next disruptive system will be. It could be in the pipeline now and, as a business reporter, that is what is so exciting to me because I get to see it from the front row.
Opportunist: What do you consider the toughest lesson of your career?
Bertha Coombs: I was downsized from my first job in business news at Yahoo Finance Vision. I was part of their inaugural online business programming, which was experimental at the time. There wasn’t much broadband penetration in 2000, but nowadays we take it for granted. Some of us joke that ‘Hey, Katie Couric is taking a page from us … that was so 14 years ago!’ It’s all in fun, of course, but it is incredible how things come around. Part of the reason I accepted the job at Yahoo was because I knew this was where media and TV were headed. Unfortunately, none of us knew how quickly or who would be the players. We never knew Apple would be a major player, on both the content and hardware side.
Opportunist: If you could give advice to someone starting out in broadcast journalism, what would it be?
Bertha Coombs: Don’t ever take a job for granted. I learned early on from losing my first job to make sure I always saved because I didn’t want to be in a position where I had no savings and had to take a job I didn’t necessarily like. Having savings gave me breathing room to decide where I wanted to go next and what I wanted to learn. Realize you will have setbacks, but it’s not about falling down—it’s about remembering you can get up and life goes on. Having that experience earlier in life helped me prepare and appreciate the jobs I’ve had since.
I remember Janet Wu at WCBV [ABC’s Boston affiliate] told me the problem with being a general news reporter is we are excitement junkies. [Laughs] I think longevity as a journalist comes from finding something you are passionate about and subject matter where you can become an expert. That gives you the flexibility to continue. If it doesn’t work out one place, you can go somewhere else. Look at Ezra Klein, who recently left The Washington Post and his popular Wonkblog to work on a new project with Vox Media. And Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg recently left Wall Street Journal to launch Re/code in partnership with NBC. They established their credentials in their sector and specialty and they were able to take that body of knowledge and move it towards an audience that is really interested. Politico is one of the really interesting evolutions we have seen.
Opportunist: When you’re not chasing the next story, how do you spend your time?
Bertha Coombs: Sometimes I like to veg. [Laughs] I wouldn’t say I’m a runner—I’m more of a chug-a-longer—but I do enjoy getting outdoors and exercising. I’m not very good at yoga but I will continue practicing. I like doing things with my hands so I cook and sew sometimes. Ceramics is something I had done in art class as a kid, so I decided to take a class. I discovered that I am spectacularly bad at it. The bowls I make on the wheel are wobbly but I just go with the process. [Laughs] I’ve found that on days when I can sort of go with something a little off-centered it’s cool and I have learned that it’s OK to not have to be perfect at everything. Sometimes not being perfect allows you to learn a lot and it gives you a little more compassion.
Opportunist: Is there anything else you’re striving for in the next five to 10 years?
Bertha Coombs: Now that I’m in my 50s the next chapter is starting to beckon. If CNBC will have me, I would love to still be here. I have a feeling my life will always involve writing and in some ways public issues or business. If I hit the lottery I would travel and then go work with the Gates Foundation and do health care volunteer work for a year. That’s something I can see myself doing 10 years from now.
Leslie Stone is an award-winning writer/editor with more than two decades of experience covering business, finance, real estate and lifestyle issues for newspapers, magazines and online publications. Originally from Virginia, she currently resides in Florida. Follow her on Twitter at @lescstone.
Follow Bertha Coombs on Twitter at @berthacoombs
Watch Bertha Coombs on CNBC
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