Past winners

The Awards for Excellence in Health Care Journalism recognize the best health reporting in print, broadcast and online media. The contest is run by journalists for journalists and is not influenced or funded by commercial or special-interest groups.

The contest features a variety of categories and entries can include a wide range of health coverage including public health, consumer health, medical research, the business of health care and health ethics.

Contest entrants fill out a questionnaire that details how they reported the work they are submitting. AHCJ posts those questionnaires with the entries, allowing other journalists to learn about new sources, get story ideas and do similar reporting in their own communities.

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Awards for Excellence in Health Care Journalism: 2011 winners

Beat Reporting

First Place: David Armstrong's 2011 Body of Work; David Armstrong, Bloomberg News

Armstrong reported on the booming business of pain treatment – a $300 billion market characterized in many places by high prices, aggressive marketing and bogus advances that have harmed some patients and fleeced others. In laser spine surgery, Armstrong found that one of the busiest back surgery centers in the country was owned by the surgeons who operate there and earned huge margins by charging premium prices for a procedure of dubious efficacy. Several patients, lured to the center by online ads, say they were hurt by the operation. In the story "Chiropractor Backing Romney" Armstrong revealed how pain clinics are profiting from treating car crash victims with a variety of expensive therapies that are of limited or no help to people in pain. One clinic operator has been so successful with this model that he travels in his own private jet and recently built a 30,000-square-foot oceanfront mansion.

Judges’ comments: This is a classic example of beat reporting. David Armstrong deconstructs the $300 billion pain management market and the medical entrepreneurs who are fueling its growth. He tells personal stories and also provides a look at a troubling big picture. This work is fair, important and a great service to readers.

AHCJ members: Log in to see the archived story and the questionnaire about how the entry was reported.

Second Place: Trine Kristin Tsouderos' 2011 Body of Work; Trine Tsouderos, Chicago Tribune

Tsouderos examined vaccination data from 5,500 Illinois public and private schools to find pockets of low vaccination rates in two types of schools: public ones serving low-income students and private ones serving wealthier students. She explained how one research paper cannot answer a scientific question and what happens when patients, scientists and physicians forget that. Tsouderos examined 12 years of funding at the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, part of the National Institutes of Health, and found the center had spent $1.2 billion, some of it on research of dubious value and quality. One of her main findings was that there was a mismatch between the way the center interpreted studies on dietary supplements and the way it interpreted studies on “mind and body” therapies. That offered an opportunity to discuss the placebo effect, and the role of the placebo in studies.

Judges’ comments: In her four submitted pieces, Trine Tsouderos reports on how members of the public and, in some cases, medical practitioners don't follow evidence-based science in adopting health practices. She uses the medical literature and extensive sourcing to buttress her strong reporting.

AHCJ members: Log in to see the archived story and the questionnaire about how the entry was reported.

Third Place: Robert Weisman's 2011 Body of Work; Robert Weisman, The Boston Globe

Weisman covers the health care business beat in a state that has become a national laboratory for medical innovation and health policy. His coveraege includes news about the sale of the company that defined the Massachusetts biotech cluster, the affordability push by the state’s largest health insurer to the marketing of a new blockbuster drug and the plight of financially strained hospitals.

Judges’ comments: Robert Weisman writes with authority about the business aspects of health care in his coverage area. His reporting is strong and his writing is confident.

AHCJ members: Log in to see the archived story and the questionnaire about how the entry was reported.

Honorable Mention: Jordan Rau's 2011 Body of Work; Jordan Rau, Kaiser Health News

Rau covers health care providers, including hospitals and hospices. These stories looked at trends that influence the cost and quality of health care providers and how efforts by the federal government may help or backfire. Many of the pieces were based on new data analyses. Two stories looked at new government penalties against hospitals with high re-admission rates and how places that treat many poor patients may end up being excessively punished for things beyond their control. Another story examined how efforts to judge and pay hospitals based on the views of their patients may penalize those places in large urban areas and those that treat extremely complex cases. A fourth story looked at how for-profit hospices are pushing up the costs of Medicare’s hospice benefit, in part because those hospitals were admitting patients who weren’t dying and keeping them for long periods of time.

Judges’ comments: By pulling together government databases and other source materials, Jordan Rau presents an informed analysis of how efforts by the federal government to rein in health care costs may produce unintended effects.

AHCJ members: Log in to see the archived story and the questionnaire about how the entry was reported.

Trade Publications

First Place: Danger Zones; Joe Carlson, Modern Healthcare

This three-part series examines a few of the kinds of security risks facing modern hospitals and some of the latest countermeasures. Risks included attacks on clinicians and building fires, while security measures ran the gamut from security cameras to data analysis.

Judges’ comments: This took on a too-rarely-covered topic: criminal hazards in the places where workers should be safest, medical care facilities. We were impressed with the quality of the writing, editing and lively packaging of this sweeping series.

AHCJ members: Log in to see the archived story and the questionnaire about how the entry was reported.

Second Place: Squeezed to Death; Heather Boerner, Lucia Hwang, National Nurse Magazine

Hospital-based skilled nursing facilities have been on the decline since CMS changed its payment rules. Hospitals have always argued that this is because CMS isn't paying enough, so the units are money losers. But is that really true? Evidence suggests that these units, which operate more and more as mini-hospitals as patients leave hospital beds quicker and sicker, support themselves just fine. But because they can't support the rest of the hospital, they are being targeted for cuts – and patients are suffering for it.

Judges’ comments: Coverage of long-term care usually focuses on the aging of baby boomers or their parents' situation. This was a fresh perspective. The reporter thoroughly explained how skilled nursing facilities play a crucial role, and how a nationwide trend of closures endangers the health of many at-risk patients.

AHCJ members: Log in to see the archived story and the questionnaire about how the entry was reported.

Third Place: Lost in Transition: The Looming Epidemic of Grown-up Congenital Heart Disease; Lisa Nainggolan,

Where once they died young, most of the 1 percent of children born with congenital heart defects in the western world now survive to adulthood and need to be followed long term. But the majority falls off the radar when they become young adults, in part due to a lack of doctors skilled in adult congenital heart disease. This will have devastating consequences for these young adults, many of whom will not get the care they need. As a result, many will suffer unecessarily or even die prematurely.

Judges’ comments: This was an interesting, well-reported story about how congenital heart disease patients are falling through the system as adults. It identifies the need to provide these patients with more coordinated care and perhaps even develop a new cardiac specialty devoted to their care.

AHCJ members: Log in to see the archived story and the questionnaire about how the entry was reported.

Health Policy

First Place: Imminent Danger; Meg Kissinger, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

A 40-year-old lawsuit decided in federal court in Milwaukee revolutionized mental health care in America. The story examines how the lawsuit set a new commitment standard for those with mental illness: that a person is an imminent danger to himself or others. That standard has proven to be tragically inadequate, a fact borne out by tragedies such as Virginia Tech and Tucson. The project examined how best to be sure those who need care are able to get care. The work exposes flaws, identifies shortcomings, holds the system accountable and points to solutions.

Judges’ comments: A tour-de-force of a medical issue that gets little attention. Exposes shortcomings in the mental health system in a compelling way. This submission showed the power of fine storytelling and narrative journalism to deepen understanding of a complex and topical health policy issue.

AHCJ members: Log in to see the archived story and the questionnaire about how the entry was reported.

Second Place: Poisoned Places: Toxic Air, Neglected Communi­ties; The Center for Public Integrity, National Public Radio

Across America, toxic air pollution continues to punish communities 21 years after Congress amended the Clean Air Act in a push to curb the most hazardous of releases. This Center for Public Integrity/NPR investigative report exposed the regulatory failures that cause millions of Americans to continue breathing unsafe air. "Poisoned Places" publicly revealed the EPA's internal "watch list" of the nation's most troublesome air polluters – 400 facilities from Texas to Iowa, New York, Arizona, Oklahoma, Louisiana. These refineries, steel mills, incinerators, cement kilns and pharmaceutical plants polluted communities with solvents that cause cancer, metals that cause brain damage. The project disclosed how rarely the EPA uses its biggest hammer in dealing with air polluters: criminal prosecution.

Judges’ comments: Amazing stuff.  The amount of work that went into this is commendable in these days of shrinking newsrooms. Top-quality journalism. We were impressed by the ambition and great commitment of the two news organizations to revealing major flaws in enforcement of the Clean Air Act and their human costs.

AHCJ members: Log in to see the archived story and the questionnaire about how the entry was reported.

Third Place: The Weight of War; Hal Bernton, Patricia Murphy, The Seattle Times, KUOW-Seattle

Reporter Hal Bernton returned from a 2009 embed in Kandahar, Afghanistan, with a basic question about a big element of life for ground troops: Are the soldiers carrying too much weight? Over and over again, he heard tales of back, shoulder, ankle and other injuries that were dogging the soldiers as they often went on patrols with 90, 100 or more pounds of gear. In long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, what type of toll could that weight take on soldier and Marines who deployed again and again? He set out to answer those questions in a cooperative effort with KUOW that found that Army and Marine leaders had long known that soldiers were overloaded but up until recently had done very little to lighten the load. The result has been an avalanche of injuries and long-term disablilties that will afflict many service members over their lifetimes and cost taxpayers billions in disability payments.

Judges’ comments: These articles crack wide open a disturbing and unexplored part of health care policy. The problem of American soldiers forced to carry outrageously heavy burdens, as described in this outstanding, nuanced work, cries out for policy attention and innovation.

AHCJ members: Log in to see the archived story and the questionnaire about how the entry was reported.

Honorable Mention: Pre-existing Condition: Female; Jenny Deam, Diane J. Salvatore, Prevention Magazine

Prevention reports that women are charged as much as 84 percent more than men for health insurance – or turned down outright – simply for being women, and that discriminatory practice is alive and well and legal in 37 states, where 95 percent of companies take full advantage of it. Prevention delved into the roots of "gender rating" and the insurance companies' rationale: that women use more preventive health-care services. The practice is scheduled to be outlawed by the Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act in 2014, but this piece showcased real women who had been charged unaffordable rates or flat-out denied coverage for reasons ranging from having given birth by Cesarean section to being a survivor of rape or domestic abuse to being proactive about controlling conditions such as fibromyalgia.

Judges’ comments: Outstanding research. Glaring flaw in health care coverage ... has been written about elsewhere, but this article nails it. This well-written investigative story …. brought new light to  an often overlooked policy issue that affects millions.

AHCJ members: Log in to see the archived story and the questionnaire about how the entry was reported.

Honorable Mention: A Desperate Scramble: Medicare Limits Drugs that Kidney Patients Need; John Gonzales, Lauren M. Whaley, Tom Kisken, CHCF Center for Health Reporting and Ven­tura County Star

This project examined the seeming contradictions in Medicare's kidney transplant program and its effects on patients' lives. More than 144,000 kidney transplant patients nationally have seen the Medicare benefit for drugs they will need throughout their lifetimes expire. The drugs, known as immunosuppressives, allow the body to accept the transplanted organ – at a cost of $17,000 year. But Medicare pays for the drugs for only 36 months, leaving transplant patients in a desperate scramble. Meanwhile, policymakers have chosen to provide kidney patients a lifetime of dialysis treatments, which funnels them to part-time lives in a dialysis chair and leaves taxpayers with a $71,000 annual Medicare tab for each patient – four times the expense of the anti-rejection drugs. Reversing the policy has been vigorously opposed by the influential dialysis industry.

Judges’ comments: A powerful and jarring account of health care policy gone bad. It's worth noting that a small paper, the Ventura County Star, went after the largest private employer in the county, Amgen, which is also the nation's second-biggest drug lobbyist in Congress. The first-hand accounts of kidney patients are riveting. This clear and persuasive work evokes outrage over the needless suffering and death of kidney transplant patients who lose government coverage for their expensive and essential anti-rejection drugs.

AHCJ members: Log in to see the archived story and the questionnaire about how the entry was reported.

Public Health

First Place: Dealing with diabetes; Pauline Bartolone, Catherine Stifter, Joe Barr, Capital Public Radio

It's estimated that about 25 million adults in the United States have diabetes, a disease that's preventable in most cases. Diabetes is hitting hardest in communities of color, where access to health care and health choices can be limited by income, education and geography. This 54-minute radio broadcast and associated multimedia web page examines how three ethnic communities in California are dealing with diabetes and how culturally-based approaches to health care are lengthening and saving lives.

Judges’ comments: This piece, it was immediately clear to the judges, was a standout. It's an unbelievably important issue and will affect a huge proportion of the U.S. population. It looks at a variety of communities and really makes human how hard it is to understand and cope with diabetes. It goes straight to the underlying problems and the costs. It is very well done. The radio medium is exploited to best effect, with numerous interviews; the writing and narrative is lively and engaging.

AHCJ members: Log in to see the archived story and the questionnaire about how the entry was reported.

Second Place: Freedom from Pain; International Reporting Program, University of British Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, Al Jazeera English

Imagine recovering from major surgery or suffering from advanced cancer without any painkillers. That's the reality for patients in half the countries in the world, but unlike so many global health problems, this one is not about money or a lack of drugs. Morphine, the gold standard for medical pain treatment, is cheap and simple to make, and it's easy to distribute. The reporters traveled to Ukraine, Uganda and India to find out why so many patients needlessly suffer the torture of medical pain and to document the human toll of this hidden human rights crisis.

Judges’ comments: This piece was very, very effective. The reporter found people directly affected – tear-jerking footage of them, doctors trying to help, advocates, government officials and relatives. The problem is clearly outlined and there's accurate reporting of the barriers and potential solutions. It's a unique look at a problem not normally addressed in the context of an emerging nation such as India. This is a problem that affects Americans as well – access to painkillers in the context of the illegal drug trade.

AHCJ members: Log in to see the archived story and the questionnaire about how the entry was reported.

Third Place: The Dental Epidemic of Alameda County; Rose Tibayan, John Fowler, Ron Acker, KTVU-Oakland, Calif.

The children of Alameda County, Calif., have some of the worst teeth in the nation – a problem the surgeon general calls the "silent epidemic." It was documented in 2006, when a dental health assessment outlined the crisis in a study. KTVU discovered that the problem had actually gotten worse. This series looks at how bad the problem is, what contributed to it and what the community is doing about the crisis in the wake of heavy budget cuts in the state's health care programs.

Judges’ comments: This piece highlights an important problem, and in an engaging and effective way outlines the causes and potential solutions. It also draws parallels with larger problems in the United States – poor diet, a lack of access to care, and poor education about the need for healthy diets and better hygiene. It's an under-reported problem and yet the team showed a great deal of insight, and, moreover, accurately reported it.

AHCJ members: Log in to see the archived story and the questionnaire about how the entry was reported.

Business (large)

First Place: Is Houston EMS Taking Medicare For A Ride?; Terri Lang­ford, Yang Wang, The Houston Chronicle

This two-part series details how Houston leads the nation in the number of private ambulance companies, number of vehicles and their connection to for-profit mental health clinics. This series noted Medicare spending in the Houston area for both areas – EMS and for-profit mental clinics were the largest for these provider areas. Stories also noted how Medicare does not police the spending well, how Medicare overpayments to EMS companies in Texas is the No. 1 problem for the Medicare contractor, TrailBlazer Health Enterprises. This series also noted the problems in city and state regulation of private EMS companies.

Judges’ comments: A very nice distillation of a big problem in health care that could easily been done with a "ripping off the taxpayers" treatment. Instead, the writers and editors personalized the tale by showing how the poor, sick and mentally vulnerable are pawns in a much bigger game. In a time of dwindling resources at big city newspapers, the judges also commend the time and manpower commitment devoted to the series.

AHCJ members: Log in to see the archived story and the questionnaire about how the entry was reported.

Second Place: ER building boom is wrong prescription, critics say; Carol M. Ostrom, The Seattle Times

With medical costs spiraling upward and state-paid insurance coverage evaporating, why are hospitals building expensive emergency rooms and encouraging patients with sprains and cuts to come there for care? To try to answer that question, Ostrom looked at the building boom, the incentives offered hospitals in the state (almost all of which are nonprofit), insurance reimbursements, a state program that helps float tax-exempt bonds for hospital construction, property-tax exemptions and, briefly, at the state's Certificate of Need program. She also talked to hospital CEOs and other officials about why they're building new ERs and how they calculate that such construction is good for their bottom line.

AHCJ members: Log in to see the archived story and the questionnaire about how the entry was reported.

Third Place: Inside Pfizer’s Palace Coup; Peter Elkind, Jennifer Rein­gold, Doris Burke, Fortune

Fortune tells the inside story of the abrupt downfall of the leader of one of the world's largest and most important companies. Jeff Kindler, named CEO of Pfizer at the age of 51, was a brilliant litigator who harbored ambitions to join Barack Obama's cabinet or launch his own political career. Instead, he found himself out of a job, the target of a sophisticated palace coup. Kindler departed with a $25 million severance package, even as the company's stock declined 36 percent under his watch.

Judges’ comments: A laudatory behind-the-scenes narrative of palace intrigues at the world's biggest drugmaker, with a gripping, wonderfully detailed narrative and well-paced tick-tock.

AHCJ members: Log in to see the archived story and the questionnaire about how the entry was reported.

Honorable Mention: Challenging the Way DaVita Does Busi­ness; Michael Booth, Jennifer Brown, Christopher Osher, The Denver Post

This investigation found that DaVita's use of the anemia drug Epogen – a drug found to be dangerous at high levels – was higher than any other company when Medicare was reimbursing the kidney dialysis firm per dosage. Two weeks before the government stopped reimbursing per dosage, company protocol changed drastically – in a significant shift, levels of the drug were kept lower in kidney dialysis patients than ever before. Fortune's reporting showed a direct correlation between the drug's usage and its money-making potential. It also found DaVita used high amounts of the drug when it was profitable despite several key studies and FDA warnings that raised cause for concern.

Judges’ comments: A commendable look at a major public employer in the coverage area with questionable business practices.

AHCJ members: Log in to see the archived story and the questionnaire about how the entry was reported.

Business (small)

Special Judges' Citation: Blue Cross Flush with Cash; Renee Dudley, The (Charleston, S.C.) Post and Courier

This article and sidebars expose the domination of Blue Cross Blue Shield in the South Carolina health insurance market and its effect on consumers. Before this report, the insurance giant brushed off criticism as unfounded. Among the newspaper's findings:

  • Blue Cross Blue Shield sits on far more capital reserves than it needs – money that should have been returned to policyholders through rebates or lowered premiums – even as it continually hikes rates.
  • The state Department of Insurance does not review rate increases and the agency's former director (he resigned in December) took a caviler approach to regulation.
  • The nine members of Blue Cross Blue Shield's board of directors have more than doubled their reported salaries in the past year.
  • Almost all state lawmakers involved in legislative insurance committees receive sizable campaign contributions from Blue Cross Blue Shield.

Judges’ comments: An ambitious and courageous effort by a small-market newspaper which revealed that South Carolina’s dominant health insurer was flush with reserves and was paying executives and board members handsomely while consistently winning rate increases from less-than-vigilant regulators.

AHCJ members: Log in to see the archived story and the questionnaire about how the entry was reported.

Investigative (large)

First Place: Shattered Trust; staff, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

An ongoing investigation in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel found that alcohol wipes, sterile and nonsterile, can be dangerously contaminated, and federal regulators were not adequately protecting the public. When there are recalls, the public does not know because of lax communications and weak tools for regulators. Over the course of nine months, the Journal Sentinel found that, for a decade, a Wisconsin company routinely violated federal rules for making sterile products, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration took little action. The contaminated wipes surfaced as the suspected culprit behind numerous illnesses and deaths in hospitals in several states. Among other findings, the newspaper found that there are several thousand drug and device makers that have not been inspected by the FDA in at least five years and hundreds have not seen an FDA inspector in 10 years or more.

Judges’ comments: In this comprehensive examination of a serious health threat, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel uncovered an equally significant danger posed by the breakdown of the government agencies that are supposed to be protecting us. While the FOI effort alone could constitute a first-place award, the reporting was humanized and made intensely relevant when the writers introduced us to the Kothari family's loss. Overall, this effort exemplifies best practices in multimedia storytelling, with graphics, compelling photos and riveting video. This will become a hallmark for how to accomplish public service reporting.

AHCJ members: Log in to see the archived story and the questionnaire about how the entry was reported.

Second Place: Counterfeit Drugs; Sam Hornblower, Kyra Darn­ton, Sanjay Gupta, M.D., 60 Minutes/CBS News

60 Minutes' nine-month investigation of counterfeit prescription drugs reveals how the dangerous and sometimes deadly fakes get into the nation's drug pipeline.

Judges’ comments: The scope of the story was impressive, including a trip to Peru for a police raid on a source of fake drugs, and interviews with FDA and U.S. immigration officials admitting they can’t screen out all the fake drugs and that even when they grab a shipment, they can’t arrest anyone; all they can do is send the pills back. This story tells a chilling tale that will make viewers look askance at their pill bottles. After it aired, Congress held hearings and the FDA drew up a new plan to monitor safety of imported drugs.  

AHCJ members: Log in to see the archived story and the questionnaire about how the entry was reported.

Second Place: Decoding Prime; Christina Jewett, Lance Williams, Stephen K. Doig, California Watch

Prime Healthcare Services has a reputation for turning around financially troubled hospitals, reporting profits in the tens of millions. But a more troubling trend has emerged, according to this investigation by California Watch. Prime tends to take over hospitals and then dramatically boost the rate of Medicare patients being admitted for care. And the hospitals report that the Medicare patients they see are far sicker than those at neighboring hospitals. Does the chain attract the toughest cases, or are the hospitals exaggerating patient conditions for profit?

Judges’ comments: Wow. A tenacious reporter scoured public records and developed a sweeping review of how aggressive Medicare billing practices went undetected in a business-as-usual mode for a California hospital company. This exhausting effort serves as a grand model for news organizations in other states.

AHCJ members: Log in to see the archived story and the questionnaire about how the entry was reported.

Honorable Mention: Drugging Delinquents; Michael LaForgia, The Palm Beach Post

This Palm Beach Post investigation found that Florida was restraining jailed children with heavy doses of potent antipsychotic drugs, medications that can turn troublemakers into "zombies" and cause serious health problems in kids. The stories also showed that a third of the psychiatrists hired by the state to evaluate and prescribe drugs for jailed children had taken speaker fees or gifts from the companies that make antipsychotic drugs. The stories also showed that Florida had hired psychiatrists to work in state juvenile jails even after the psychiatrists had used delinquents to defraud Medicaid, or had medicated children until the children overdosed and died.

Judges’ comments: Michael LaForgia used data analysis to show that children in juvenile-justice facilities were being kept docile through heavy doses of powerful antipsychotic drugs that can cause serious health problems. He also found that psychiatrists writing the prescriptions were in many cases paid “consultants” to drug manufacturing companies. The story made waves in Florida. The Department of Juvenile Justice assigned investigators to do an exhaustive review, and the Legislature is getting involved.

AHCJ members: Log in to see the archived story and the questionnaire about how the entry was reported.

Investigative (small)

First Place: The Case of Dr. Konasiewicz; Brandon Stahl, Mark Stodghill, Duluth News Tribune

During the 10 years he worked at St. Luke's hospital, Dr. Stefan Konasiewicz performed more neurosurgeries than any other doctor in Duluth and became the city's highest-paid physician. Yet he also amassed scores of patient complaints and numerous lawsuits, eventually leading insurance companies to deem him uninsurable.

The News Tribune identified nearly 90 cases of alleged patient harm by Konasiewicz, beginning with eight malpractice suits which the hospital settled for at least $3.2 million. The newspaper also showed that St. Luke's, which went from operating at a deficit to a healthy surplus during Konasiewicz's tenure, kept him on staff despite numerous warnings from other physicians about the quality of his care.  By going to court to release a sealed document, the News Tribune showed that the state medical board only took action against the physician after a county medical examiner wrote the board asking for an investigation to determine "if Dr. Konasiewicz is incompetent or reckless."

Finally reprimanded by the state medical board for causing permanent patient harm and deaths, Konasiewicz left Minnesota for Texas, where he faced no restrictions on his license and continued to garner patient complaints.

Judges’ comments: Writer Brandon Stahl and the Duluth News Tribune showed exceptional doggedness and courage in chronicling malpractice allegations against one physician and the defense mounted by hospital administrators despite warnings from their own staff. The News Tribune fought vigorously to have records made public and, although confronted by a libel suit, the newspaper continued its reporting. When Konasiewicz moved to Corpus Christi, Texas, Stahl found an ally in a local TV station and was able to identify Texas patients with complaints about the care they'd received. Stahl and the News Tribune then went further, explaining why these patients would not likely be able to sue in Texas because of the impact of tort reform in that state. The coverage showed impressive and laudable commitment by the reporter and the newspaper, and we believe it speaks volumes to the medical community about the media's tenacity when it comes to defending the voiceless.

AHCJ resource: Reporter Q&A: Duluth News Tribune exposes malpractice allegations

AHCJ members: Log in to see the archived story and the questionnaire about how the entry was reported.

Second Place: Cash, Criminals and Human Organs; Michael S. Smith, Daryna Krasnolutska, David Glovin, Bloomberg Markets Magazine

Bloomberg Markets magazine senior writer Michael Smith identified and reported the stories of impoverished victims, brokers and doctors involved in illicit organ transplant trafficking in Latin America, Europe and Africa. Smith traveled for much of 2011 in poor neighborhoods and hospitals in Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Nicaragua and Peru, as well as former Soviet republics in Eastern Europe. He documented how illegal networks of brokers and physicians exploit the poor and profit from wealthy Americans, Europeans and Israelis in need of kidney transplants. The result is often injury, sometimes death and usually a life of humiliation for both those selling and buying kidneys.

Judges’ comments: Bloomberg Markets makes its worldwide reach felt with these thorough reports on the human toll of the illicit trade in organs. Senior writer Michael Smith (Santiago) called upon a legion of reporters to track down donors, recipients and government officials. This team identified the nations whose citizenry play the largest role in perpetuating this trade. They showed the vast disparity between what is paid and what the donor receives. And, they documented the debilitating – and sometimes tragic – losses suffered by both donors and recipients.

AHCJ members: Log in to see the archived story and the questionnaire about how the entry was reported.

Third Place: Athlete Buyers, Beware; Betsy Cliff, The (Bend, Ore.) Bulletin

These stories examined a prominent local company, Bioletics, and its founder, Dr. Richard Cohen, concluding that the company likely did not live up to its promises of science-based performance enhancement and that Cohen had violated portions of Oregon law that prohibits people from portraying themselves as a physician without proper licensing.

Judges’ comments: Betsy Q. Cliff shines the light on one of the many companies that makes claims about nutritional supplements – in this case, specifically promising to improve athletic performance. Cliff explains to readers why Bioletics can make claims about athletic performance but cannot promise medical improvements. She also gives Bioletics "doctor" consultant plenty of opportunity to explain the benefits of his product, explanations that ring hollow when Cliff then cites medical evidence from other experts. And then comes the coup de grace, when Cliff explains that the consultant, Richard Cohen, is licensed to practice medicine on only his own family and that this license applies in only one state.

AHCJ members: Log in to see the archived story and the questionnaire about how the entry was reported.

Honorable Mention: UConn’s Dempsey Hospital off the Charts in Controversial 'Double CT Scan' Use; Lisa Chedekel, Connecticut Health Investigative Team

Using data from the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services, Lisa Chedekel reported that the state-funded University of Connecticut's John Dempsey Hospital was administering combination CT scans of the chest to almost half of all patients who received the procedure – which was nearly 10 times higher than the national average. In addition, more than 72 percent of patients who received CT scans for the abdomen received double scans. Her story was reported at a time when combination scans were under scrutiny because they may expose patients to excess radiation. The head of UConn's radiation department admitted that the numbers were "staggering'' and added that "radiation safety is very high on our list of concerns. The story disclosed that most of the state's 30 hospitals were below the national average on combination CT scans. 

Judges’ comments: Lisa Chedekel packs a powerful punch in a small space with this story pointing out that John Dempsey Hospital's used combination CT scans 10 times more than the national average and sent roughly three-quarters of patients for double scans. Such practices expose patients to excess radiation. Faced with Chedekel's questions, the hospital's radiation chair said he would be contacting doctors to push for change.

AHCJ members: Log in to see the archived story and the questionnaire about how the entry was reported.

Consumer/Feature (large)

First Place: Lives Restored; Benedict Carey, The New York Times

Each of the five stories tells the personal story of an individual who has been living with a secret – a severe mental illness – while living what appears from the outside to be a normal, successful life.

Judges’ comments: Benedict Carey breaks new ground in the understanding of living with severe mental illness. As Carey reveals in five portraits told over six months, people with severe mental illness can live successful and fulfilling lives. But more than inspirational stories, Carey’s reports are crafted to share each person’s coping strategies in dealing with inner voices or compulsions. For people with severe mental illness, medications and therapies alone are not enough. Carey has found the real experts in the field and his reporting has had an impact.

 As Carey tells us in his application, “The series resulted in changes in curriculum in some federal mental health programs – the stories became part of the program, as teaching tools. University professors, as well as dozens of mental health programs across the country, are also using them as educational material – to show how people can cope with severe diagnoses.”

Carey’s reporting has given new hope to scores of people living with diseases many thought barred them from living successful lives. We are delighted to award “Lives Restored” the first-place award.

AHCJ members: Log in to see the archived story and the questionnaire about how the entry was reported.

Second Place: The Screening Dilemma; Kate Pickert, Time

This story explores the perils of cancer screening, the process of searching for cancer in asymptomatic people. It is something most Americans consider life-saving, but Kate Pickert pulled back the curtain to explain this is not always the case. Screening can, in fact, be life threatening and is big business for powerful sectors of the U.S. health care system. It may be better not to find some cancers at all, given that many are inconsequential and the impulse to treat them with surgery, radiation or chemotherapy is so great. Pickert delved into the entire cancer screening apparatus and looked at other misguided screening protocols that get far less attention.

Judges’ comments: Kate Pickert asks the multimillion dollar question … “Are some cancers better left undiscovered?’ As she powerfully illustrates, simply asking the “C” (cancer) question can be life threatening and is big business for powerful sectors of the U.S. health care industry.  Pickert points out that it may be better off to not find some answers, given that many cancers are inconsequential and the impulse to treat is so great.               

This article raised important issues about a number of tests and broke new ground by looking at several screening protocols that are on the rise and might save one life while harming thousands of others, forcing many to endure myriad unrelated interventions to treat innocuous findings.

Time used strong graphics to drive its points home and left readers with solid advice on which tests readers should undergo and gave important questions to ask before screenings.

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Third Place: Code Green: Bleeding Dollars; Luis Fabregas, Andrew Conte, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

This yearlong series pinpoints billions of dollars of waste in four areas of the nation's health care system.

Judges’ comments:  This yearlong series from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review pinpointed billions of dollars of waste in the nation’s health care system. Spanning the nation from Maine to Miami and from New York to California, with in-depth and investigative reporting by Luis Febregas, Andrew Conte; the Tribune-Review highlighted critical spending issues from unnecessary readmissions to billions being spent on new facilities without review or proof of need.

This series utilized poignant humanization… great photography, striking graphics and an extensive interactive web presentation to drive home the points of the investigation.

Within days of their pointing out that Pennsylvania was one of only 14 states nationwide without a Certificate of Need review process for new hospitals and other equipment, Pennsylvania legislators were drafting new legislation to reinstate the process.

The extensive travel, weeks of data analysis and follow-up reporting in this entry made a difference in the nation’s health care spending practices.

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Honorable Mention: Home Alone: Adult Health Center Cuts Devastate Elderly, Disabled; Jocelyn Wiener, Lauren M. Whaley, CHCF Center for Health Reporting with New America Media

This series examined the impact of California's elimination of the Medi-Cal Adult Day Health Care (ADHC) benefit on minority communities. ADHC provides meals, therapy and medical care, as well as companionship and a sense of community, to 38,000 poor elderly and disabled Californians. The centers also provide jobs for hundreds of local residents and relief to thousands of families of loved ones who participate in the program. The project was the result of a partnership between the CHCF Center for Health Reporting and nine Los Angeles area ethnic media organizations. In many of these communities, local media are residents' sole means of finding out about local issues. Under the direction of the Center, with coordinating help from New America Media, the collaboration produced 10 print stories in four languages (English, Spanish, Chinese and part of one story in Tagalog), three audio slideshows and a photo gallery.

Judges’ comments:  Because of deep budget cuts in California, the Adult Day Health Centers were slated for elimination. This series looked at the impact on the seniors and disabled people who count on ADHC services. Across California, nearly 40-thousand people depend on these centers for meals and medical care as well as a sense of community.

The project was a partnership between the California Health Care Foundation’s Center for Health Reporting and nine Los Angeles area ethnic media organizations. In many Los Angeles communities, local media are residents’ only means of following the news. With coordinating help from New America Media, this multi-lingual partnership yielded 10 print stories in four languages, three audio slideshows and a photo gallery.

This is local news at its finest — right at the community level.  It is also foundation-backed journalism at its finest. The Center for Health Reporting stayed with the story as ADHC was slated to be eliminated on February 29, 2012. But at the last moment, the state relented and replaced ADHC with a new program — still the state says only half the current participants will be able to continue to receive services. The Center for Health Reporting says that the advocacy community read the stories produced and used them in its efforts to save the ADHC program.

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Consumer/Feature (small)

First Place: His Final Choice: Reflections on Life, Death and a Lethal Dose of Seconal / Controversy and Choices; Tahlia Honea, Skagit Valley (Wash.) Herald

"His Final Choice" follows Robert Good through terminal cancer and his choice to fill a prescription for drug that would end his life. The story delves into the emotions surrounding physician aid in dying, including the anger, compassion and acceptance of Good's life partner Eve Syapin. Good gives insight into the fear and pain of throat cancer in its final phase. Most of all, the story highlights the comfort Good felt by having the choice to end his life within an arm's reach, without the stigma of suicide. (Under the Washington State Death With Dignity law, physician aid in dying is not considered a suicide). Though the story set out to be one of following someone using the prescription, what emerged is a narrative about the comfort of having the choice. The side story "Controversy and choices: Doctors, activists stand on both sides of the issue" explores the more political side of Death With Dignity, the law that allows physician aid in dying. While voters passed the law with a large margin in 2008, many doctors, or entire organizations, will not prescribe the medication due to personal, ethical or religious beliefs. The story also explains the logistics of using the medication and some of the difficulties people have finding a doctor who will prescribe them the drug.

Judges’ comments: There have been many stories about the legislative, legal and ethical arguments surrounding Washington’s Death With Dignity legislation, but few that have presented the emotional impact of the decision on a patient and his partner with the direct elegance of “His Final Choice” from the Skagit Valley Herald. Tahlia Honea’s sympathetic but honest treatment of Robert Goode’s terminal cancer, his long and loving relationship with Eve Syapin, and above all, the comfort he drew from knowing he could end his life on his own terms – even though he put off taking his pills until death was very near – highlight one impact of the law that few have spoken about. It took skill and determination to follow this story to its sad but emotionally satisfying end. Scott Terrell’s straightforward photographs – in particular his appealing cover portrait – added detail and depth to our understanding of the major characters. Details about the law itself, the difficulty people have finding doctors who will prescribe life-ending drugs, and inclusion of opinions from people on both sides of the issue added the proper context to a first-rate report and a fine example of character-based storytelling.

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Second Place: The Woman Who Fell to Earth; Ruthann Richter, Stan­ford Medicine Magazine

The story offers a window into the human impact of traumatic brain injury while exploring some of the mysteries of survival from catastrophic injury. It relates the astonishing experience of 30-year-old Deborah Shurson, who plummeted 2,600 feet to Earth in a skydiving accident in 1982. She suffered staggering injuries: a punctured lung, damaged spleen and multiple fractures to her ribs, pelvis, legs and sternum. But it was her brain injury that ultimately would prove to be the greatest threat to her life. Her rescuers found her unconscious and never expected her to survive the night, much less walk, talk or return to normal life. The story follows Deborah's progress in the decades following the accident, as she stumbles through rehabilitation and ultimately meets another brain-injured patient, Gary Fairchild, who becomes her partner in renewal. 

Judges’ comments: Ruthann Richter met the subject of her riveting article in 2000 and finally told her remarkable tale more than a decade later. Deborah Shurson fell 2,600 feet to earth in a 1982 skydiving accident and astonished her doctors, friends and loved ones by surviving. Richter followed Shurson through decades of struggle with rehabilitation, through a divorce, and ultimately into a loving and mutually beneficial relationship with a brain-injured man whose limited abilities complemented her own. There’s no fairy-tale ending here – but a sympathetic and truthful description of the struggles that begin once doctors have exhausted their magic.

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Third Place: Sex After Breast Cancer; Georgie Binks, Best Health

This is a story about the sex lives of women after they have undergone treatment for breast cancer. It is a frank discussion of their situation, enlightening, heartbreaking and still empowering. It reveals there are not many resources for these women but that they still attempt and succeed in some cases to have intimacy with their partners.

Judges’ comments: This is a sensitive subject rarely covered in consumer articles about breast cancer survivors, but one that must surely weigh heavily on the minds of women diagnosed with the disease. Georgie Binks treats it with dignity and compassion through interviews with Canadian breast cancer survivors whose experiences indicate that there are relatively few resources available to help women with the sexual problems they may face but that some can still succeed in regaining intimacy with their partners.

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