2020 recap: How an L.A. journalist turned up the heat for 6 months until Beaumont merger evaporated

December 30, 2020, 7:05 AM by  Alan Stamm

This repost from Oct. 2 is the ninth in a daily countdown of 10 articles from this year. Links to earlier ones are at the end.

We try to avoid cliches, but two pop to mind as Beaumont Health merger plans go poof after a half-year of critical Deadline Detroit columns: "David beats Goliath" and "sunlight disinfefcts." 


The skeptical light comes from contributing columnist Eric Starkman, a former business journalist in Detroit and elsewhere who contributes to this news site from Los Angeles. The Goliath is the Royal Oak-based hospital group, which backed off Oct. 2 from a proposed deal with Chicago-based Advocate Aurora Health that Starkman explored in over three dozen columns.

The move would have made Beaumont a regional outpost of a multi-state network. No reason was given for the abrupt scuttling.

Eric Starkman: "I regard Beaumont’s collapse as a national story."

Starkman's sharp-edged reporting and critiques shook loose information from insiders who also questioned the purported benefits of their top-ranked hospital network's affiliation with the bigger, but less prestigious Advocate Aurora Health system based in suburban Chicago and Milwaukee. Congressman Andy Levin of Bloomfield Township and two state legislators from Royal Oak -- Sen. Mallory McMorrow and Rep. Jim Ellison -- in late September became the first elected officials opposing the deal.

"I simply do not accept this merger as it is currently proposed," Levin told Starkman, "and unless I hear some facts to change my mind, I expect to make it stop happening."

Beaumont pulled the plug two days after that column, the writer's 39th on Beaumont since April 18.

His first headline six months ago set the tone for Starkman's fact-driven drumbeat: "Beaumont’s FU to Metro Detroit and its Covid-19 Workers." (That piece, before knowledge of the Advocate Aurora talks, was pegged to the "stealth closing of its hospital in Wayne" and "mismanaged efforts to justify why CEO John Fox’s compensation nearly doubled to $5.6 million.")  

Starkman reported relentlessly on a topic essentially ignored by Detroit's daily newspapers and approached later in a different way by the local business weekly. The freelance writer presented the voices of doctors, nurses and anesthesiologists worried about cost-cutting, outsourcing and other financial maneuvers they feel affect patient care.

His coverage from the perspective of workers and consumers touched a nerve in Beaumont's executive suites. At least one board member reportedly brought printouts of Deadline columns to meetings.

July 26 column graphic

Fox derided Starkman as a "mudslinging machine" who’s only interested in "the next bucket of mud" during a July 21 Zoom call with Beaumont doctors. In another reaction, he reportedly dismissed the journalist as a "psycho blogger." 

Beaumont media relations director Mark Geary declined to answer most inquiries from the columnist, once saying he "will continue to provide interviews [only] to the numerous mainstream media outlets that publish and broadcast objective, fact-based and unbiased coverage."

The company also paid for friendly treatment from Crain's Content Studio, a non-news branch of Crain's Detroit Business. Group publisher Mary Kramer conducted an Aug. 7 sponsored "interview" with Fox about "how the proposed partnership with Advocate Aurora Health could benefit Michigan." Sponsored content, labeled as provided by Beaumont, also apperaed alongside Crain's articles. (Deadline also occasionally posts material identified as coming from sponsors, which don't include Beaumont.)

Starting June 17, Crain's health writer began reporting on the merger talks. The headline on his second post four days later says: "Beaumont merger with Advocate Aurora could lead to Michigan expansion."

Back at this site, a Starkman column June 19 was headlined "Public Hearings Must Be Held on Beaumont Selling Out Michigan." 

The crusading freelancer, who began his career as a Wall Street Journal reporter in 1980, also has written about business for the Toronto Star, The Gazette in Montreal and The Detroit News (1985-88). He switched to public relations in 1992 and owned a firm with offices in New York and San Francisco from 1999-2017. 

Starkman wrote last month about what motivates his intense focus on a business 2,300 miles from his Southern California home. Under the headline "Why I’m Passionate About Covering the Destruction of Beaumont Health," he said:

I regard Beaumont’s collapse as a national story that's emblematic of all that's wrong with America. I'm bothered by the disproportion of wealth in America, where the richest one percent have steadily increased their financial holdings at the expense of the 99 percent other Americans. I believe in "healthcare for all," and Beaumont is an obstacle to that goal. ...

National health insurance will never be possible if supposedly "not for profit" hospitals are paying inept CEOs and COOs like Fox and [Carolyn] Wilson respectively about $6 million and $2 million annually, and millions more in payouts after they destroy them.

Three weeks later, Starkman takes a victory lap in his report on the Oct. 2 news. "The termination raises questions about the future of Fox and his senior management," writes Starkman, who has advocated relentlessly for the CEO's firing. "With two failed announced merger talks, it likely will become increasingly difficult for Fox to cut another deal."

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