Just one more question
Like the great TV detective Columbo, Long-Term Living columnist Gary Tetz (Funny You Should Ask) always has one more question. In this bimonthly feature, he talks with long-term care leaders about anything that pops into his mind. He’s as surprised as you are that they’ll speak to him, and apologizes in advance for whatever inanity he might blurt out in the pressure of the moment.
When I found myself emaciated and alone outside a shuttered dot-com in the winter of 2005, it was Richard Peck who showed a little pity. “Gary, we notice you don’t have a job,” he said. “Would you be willing to rebuild your shattered confidence by creating a bimonthly column for Nursing Homes magazine in which you describe in excruciating detail a mundane and/or humiliating personal experience and somehow peripherally connect it to the long-term care profession?” Or words to that effect.
When he put it that way, how could I say no? But while I’m still finding ways to embarrass myself in print four years later, Richard is leaving his post to edit a magazine called Behavioral Healthcare-which is what I’ll need a lot of to deal with the pre-existing abandonment issues his departure is sure to inflame.
Richard has been an editor/writer for healthcare publications for 36 years. He took the helm of Nursing Homes/Long Term Care Management (now Long-Term Living) in 1991, doubling both its audience and frequency over his 18-year tenure as editor-in-chief. A 1964 graduate of Yale University, he spent three years in the U.S. Army before starting his journalistic career.
Against his better judgment, he agreed to one final, on-the-record conversation, and spoke to me by phone from his Cleveland, Ohio office.
This is an odd turnaround I must say.
Well, you still have some clout here. You don’t have to subject yourself to this.
I think it’s a good idea though. How’s everything going?
As you know, I’m transitioning into another publication, called Behavioral Healthcare, and publishing ain’t what it used to be. It’s so much more complicated with the online edition and the overall scheme of things. So yeah, a little busy.
I didn’t even know you were leaving. But when Maureen [Hrehocik, Long-Term Living’s new Editor] started editing my columns, I began to get suspicious.
You thought I’d changed my name or had a gender change operation?
Exactly. Do you want this interview to be just a slight grilling or a full-on roast?
The nice thing is it’s not live, and we can edit. So ask away and see what happens.
What about journalistic integrity? I think yours should be the first one we don’t edit at all.
Remind me how you got started in long-term care journalism?
I became editor of a magazine called Geriatrics back in 1982. They were moving the publication from New York City to Cleveland, and none of the staff wanted to move here. I transitioned to Nursing Homes magazine [now Long-Term Living] in 1991. At the time, the magazine was a bimonthly going to about 24,000 subscribers. Over the next few years, we doubled the circulation and became a monthly, now going to about 50,000.
Of course, in the historical timeline of the magazine, wouldn’t you want to highlight the dramatic uptick in circulation and advertising dollars that occurred when I started writing in 2005?
Right. Yes. It was a complete turnaround. Onward and upward.
So you’re still in Cleveland. You went for the job, but stayed for the weather.
Yes, the weather is a significant drawback, but really, we like the town a great deal. It has many offerings that are not well known throughout the country, which is fine because we don’t want people moving here and ruining things.
Why did you end up sticking with long-term care?
I thought it was a fascinating story, from a journalistic standpoint. Here you had this field providing necessary services to a vulnerable population 24/7, but struggling every day to get recognition and combat a negative reputation just to get basic funding. Since then [the early 1990s], it has been a constant battle for this very necessary and well-meaning but devalued profession.
Obviously there have been people who abused the field, who did not provide the quality they should have and were in it just for the money. And they blackened the field’s reputation, starting back with the Senate investigations in the early 1970s. I don’t think the field has ever gotten over the fallout from that period. Yet they soldier on providing more caring, sophisticated, and quality services, despite total lack of recognition.
All within a bad system.
A terrible financial system, which no one knows about.
How did the system get so messed up? You were there, why didn’t you do something?
[Chuckling] I’ve been trying! I’ve been working hard for 18 years to fix everything! And then I come to the end of my tenure here, and I see Senate finance committee chairman Max Baucus [D-Mont.] coming out with his long-term care plan. Total regulation, total punishment-a total “watch out for these money-grubbing people” type of thing. That’s their idea of long-term care reform. So I figure I’ve really had no impact whatsoever!
So you decided to step down and serve the profession in a different way. Is Sarah Palin your career advisor?
[Laughs] I’d like to think that we’ve had a hand in improving the field to some extent over the past 18 years. For example, I hope our OPTIMA Award competition that we started back in 1996 has had some impact in getting people recognized for what they do and setting some sort of benchmark for quality. Attending those award ceremonies has always been a highlight of my year, because the focus is on rewarding staff, not just management or ownership. It’s just a great kick to see that happen.
You’ve worked with a lot of influential long-term care association leaders over the years. Chip Roadman [former president of AHCA-the American Health Care Association] and Larry Minnix [president of AAHSA-the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging], for instance.
That was back in a kind of a golden era when Roadman and Minnix were actually working together and making points for the field in a unified way. Today, I get the feeling that AHCA and AAHSA are not collaborating as they should. It’s like they have totally different ideologies, and I think that hurts the field. They should work harder to get together on the same platform so people can get a clear idea of what the long-term care interest is, rather than what the for-profit versus not-for-profit interests are.
What about memorable public figures you’ve met over the years? I was nearly trampled by Newt Gingrich and his entourage at an AHCA conference once.
I interviewed Sen. Ted Kennedy [D-Mass.] some years ago, and that was a lot of fun. The buzzer in his office kept going off telling him to come to the floor of the Senate, but he just kept saying, “Don’t worry about it.” He leaned back in his chair, hands behind his head and very easily answered my questions. I had my camera with me, so he put his jacket back on and posed for a picture. Just an easygoing guy, fun to talk with.
I also almost stepped on Michael Dukakis.
[Chuckles] That’s not hard to do.
Let’s talk about your writing. How do your editorials stack up against John Keats or Francis Bacon?
Better than Bacon, as I’ve always had difficulty with Elizabethan prose. But Keats really is tough competition-impossible, I’d say.
Better than bacon? Really? Bacon is very tasty.
I wouldn’t eat my editorials, if I were you.
How can you call yourself a journalist or an editor when not a single article in Long-term Living was devoted to Michael Jackson?
Hey, that was after my time. It’s really Maureen’s fault.
When you’re writing your editorials, there are probably things you want to say, but can’t. What do you wish you could have blurted out to providers?
That’s hard. I have been somewhat critical of providers sometimes in my editorials, but I’ve also taken some grief for not being critical enough. Here at this magazine, we try to provide positive stories and a positive outlook on things, but every once in a while I hear from some jaundiced facility staffer who says, “Oh yeah, well you haven’t met my owner. He’s grubbing for the money. He doesn’t care about quality. He should be prosecuted for what he’s getting away with.” It’s a reality check that reminds me, “Hey, these guys are still out there.” To that extent, I wish I had done and said more, because people like that undermine everything we’re trying to do.
What have you wanted to say to politicians?
I would love to have been able to address the politicians directly and say, “Look, pay attention to the field and get off this punitive thing. It probably plays well in Peoria that you appear to be defending the vulnerable elderly. But in fact what you’re doing is undermining their support system.”
Back in the late ’70s, everybody had a plan for national health insurance, and Ted Kennedy had the most rigorous and comprehensive plan of all. But even he didn’t touch long-term care because it was just too darn expensive. It’s always been off to the side as an unknown quantity and a pain in the neck. I wish politicians would approach it with more open and accepting minds.
Looking to the future, what concerns you most?
Everybody’s talking about the impact of the Baby Boomers. I don’t think this field or society is squared away to deal with it, and we’re not taking a very intelligent approach. Right now, the CLASS Act comes as close as anything to addressing long-term care in a systematic way, but God only knows how that’s going to fare. And even that doesn’t have the support of the for-profit side of the ledger, so far as I can tell.
Why are you left-wing liberal media elites always so negative?
[Laughs] That’s not our problem. We’re actually too positive.
What will you miss most about Long-Term Living?
As I said, from a journalistic standpoint long-term care is a great story. It really is. And I’m going to miss seeing how this plays out, how the market will evolve, and how people will grow and face new challenges. There will be exciting developments, and not being able to track them on a regular daily basis will be a bit of withdrawal.
Now that you can talk freely, I have some questions about the magazine. Why do you never do a swimsuit issue?
Actually, we did a calendar of very vital, very interesting residents that was produced by a local provider. They literally had Mr. January and Ms. February. Maybe we should do that again, a resident of the month. I don’t know about a foldout, necessarily.
Why can’t the magazine be printed on recycled MDS manuals?
We don’t have space to store them. I don’t think there’s a warehouse big enough in the world.
Here’s a marketing idea. What about giving away free “WWLKD?” bracelets at the next trade show?
Hmmmm. What does that stand for?
What Would Leah Klusch Do.
[Chuckles] Yes, that would be a good one.
How does anyone know that you and I aren’t the same person? In the four years I’ve been writing for this magazine, we’ve never been seen together.
That’s true. I’d be happy to take credit for what you do. In fact, I think I will.
Is there really a reason for me to keep writing, or even for the magazine to keep publishing now that you’re leaving?
Obviously, it’s going to have a devastating impact on the magazine and on publishing in general, but I think Long-Term Living will carry on and find a way.
To commemorate the transition, maybe we could get Bette Midler to come in and sing “One for My Baby,” like she did for Johnny Carson.
Yes, she could sing me off the publication. Fantastic.
Before you leave, can I get in writing some kind of official pardon for anything offensive or ridiculous I’ve said in the pages of this magazine?
No, you’re still on the hook.
Can I have your office?
If you can clean it out, sure. And I’ll take a nice, clean, simple office to do actual work.
When I started writing for the magazine, my name was on the cover almost every month. And now, it’s rare. Why?
It’s awful, but you know how it is. No matter how well you do, you start getting taken for granted. So that’s probably what happened, and we ought to put you back in there.
My picture was never on the cover either.
So maybe in your waning days of influence, you could make that happen. Or maybe we could be on the cover together?
But seriously, you’ve been a positive voice in this profession for a long time, and your work is widely respected.
I appreciate that. It will be interesting to see how things develop. I will miss it.
Could you set one final rumor to rest? Did John O’Connor and Jim Berklan over at McKnight’s Long-Term Care News engineer some sort of bloodless coup to depose you?
I don’t know. Do you think? Maybe they put something in my soup.
Well, thanks again. I’ll get this article edited and back to you as soon as possible.
Good. I’ll burnish the quotes and make them seem more intelligent than they actually were.
That’s the essence of journalism.
To send your comments to the editor, e-mail email@example.com.
Gary Tetz is multimedia consultant at Consonus Healthcare Services. He was a columnist for I Advance Senior Care / Long-Term Living from 2005-2012.