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.
Awards for Excellence in Health Care Journalism: 2019 winners
- Beat Reporting
- Trade Publications/Newsletters
- Investigative (large)
- Investigative (small)
- Consumer/Feature (large)
- Consumer/Feature (small)
- Health Policy (large)
- Health Policy (small)
- Public Health (large)
- Public Health (small)
First Place: 2019 Body of Work; Patricia Nevins Kime, Freelance
In pieces for The New York Times Magazine, the Military Times and Military.com, Kime revealed that military troops were suffering from chronic lead exposure, how the military struggles with suicide in the ranks, how a ruling about Agent Orange exposure was delayed, details of Tricare's biggest case of medical fraud, and a case that went farther in the court system than any other military malpractice case in a decade.
Judges' comments: This was coverage consistently as beautifully and compelling written as it was hard hitting in its original revelations of military issues or new developments previously hidden from view. It was additionally noteworthy because of the large number of military personnel related to its disclosures. This was superb beat journalism.
Second Place: 2019 Body of Work; Kristina Marusic, Environmental Health News
This collection of stories uncovered a wide variety of public health threats in Southwestern Pennsylvania, including polluted air linked to elevated child cancer rates; “forever chemicals” being unknowingly spread on farm fields; and a sham lawsuit settlement by a notorious polluter known for sickening residents.
Third Place: 2019 Body of Work; Donald G. McNeil Jr., The New York Times
For a story about the rise of drug-resistant bacteria, Donald G. McNeil Jr. traveled to the headwaters of the Ganges, in the Himalayas, and accompanied scientists as they moved downstream, testing the waters to discover where and how the river becomes tainted. McNeil followed a Canadian medical mission through rural Ugandan villages as doctors used a small, rugged ultrasound scanner to diagnose pneumonia, cancer and even scrofula. The story about a new drug combination for XDR tuberculosis, which was once a death sentence, was an exclusive. McNeil also broke the story about the sudden end of the government's PREDICT program, which enabled scientists to search for animal viruses that may one day infect humans. As a measles outbreak spread among Orthodox Jews in New York, Mr. McNeil traced its origins to an annual religious ceremony in Ukraine that some called "Hasidism’s Burning Man."
First Place: The Ebola Wars; Amy Maxmen, Nature
The ongoing Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo is the most volatile the world has ever seen. And it is testing the revamped World Health Organization, which transformed itself after criticism following its botched handling of the 2014-2016 Ebola epidemic. Amy Maxmen traveled to the DRC with the WHO director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, as he visited his team on the ground a year into the outbreak. Some of his first responders had been killed, and the WHO was lacking funds to continue the response. Once in DRC, Amy found that the Ebola response looked different than it had in West Africa, where she had reported from Sierra Leone at the peak of the crisis.
Judges' comments: A thorough, timely focus on a deadly confluence. With strong supporting graphics and photos, this package went above and beyond excellent.
Second Place: Protein-slaying drugs could be the next blockbuster therapies; Megan Scudellari, Nature
The quirky chemical compound began as a lab parlor trick, then morphed into one of the most promising new drug strategies in years. An emerging class of drugs, called proteolysis-targeting chimeras, or PROTACs, has the potential to hit some of medicine’s most troublesome protein targets, such as the "undruggable" cancer-causing protein MYC and the tau protein that tangles up in Alzheimer’s disease. With the field on the cusp of its first clinical trial, this story describes the chemistry, history, and promise of this new and unusual drug strategy.
Third Place: To Err is a Leadership Failure; Harris M. Meyer and Maria Castellucci, Modern Healthcare
Our package of reporting and commentary on patient safety was intended as a call to action for the health care industry, which has been far too complacent in the 20 years since the Institute of Medicine released its report, “To Err is Human: Building a Safer Health System.” That landmark report attempted to spark action on improving patient safety by reporting that at least 44,000 and perhaps as many as 98,000 people die in U.S. hospitals each year as a result of medical errors.
But many of the report’s ambitious goals, such as creating a reliable system of measuring errors, were never realized. The biggest hurdle? Health care CEOs have not made safety and quality a top priority. That’s a deep disappointment to safety and quality leaders, who hoped their industry would be much further along by now. In seven reported articles, three expert commentaries, an editorial, and a 30-year timeline, Modern Healthcare laid out evidence of the nation’s halting progress toward the goal of zero patient harm, and detailed the various factors that have gotten in the way.
First Place: Hidden Harm; Christina Jewett, Kaiser Health News
Doctors, researchers and savvy patients have long trusted a public database run by the FDA for information about injuries, deaths or malfunctions linked to breast implants, surgical mesh, artificial knees and hundreds of other medical products.
But a Kaiser Health News investigation discovered that, for nearly 20 years, the FDA was striking secret deals with medical device makers to keep millions of malfunction and injury reports out of that public repository known as MAUDE – and instead letting them submit reports to a secret database, hidden from public view. KHN’s “Hidden Harm” series by Reporter Christina Jewett revealed that the FDA granted special reporting “exemptions” that were so obscure that safety experts, doctors and even a recent FDA commissioner were not aware they existed.
Judges' comments: This is investigative journalism of the highest caliber. The judges were thoroughly impressed by the reporter's persistence in wrenching loose the facts and by her skill in telling this riveting story. It's terrifying that anyone in America can undergo a surgery that could go horribly wrong and that the doctor, patient and family would be totally in the dark.
Second Place: Tainted Pills, Broken Trust; Anna Edney, Susan Berfield, Margaret Newkirk, Bloomberg
For years, consumers around the globe have relied on generic drugs to provide inexpensive alternatives to ever-costlier brand-name pharmaceuticals. Underpinning that system is a promise: That generics are as effective and safe as the medicines they mimic. In 2019, Bloomberg News reporters around the world showed how that promise is being broken. Through deep investigative reporting and comprehensive news coverage, Bloomberg demonstrated that the global supply chain for cheap drugs has been inundated with dangerous toxins linked to cancer. The revelations ignited a congressional inquiry and prompted the Food and Drug Administration to overhaul its safety oversight of drug manufacturers. The stories showed how over-matched and under-resourced regulators at the FDA have been unable to uncover, trace or stop the spread of these toxins.
Third Place: The Opioid Files; Staff, The Washington Post
The Opioid Files for the first time identified not only the counties flooded with the highest amount of prescription opioid pills at the height of the prescription drug crisis, but the specific manufacturers, distributors and pharmacies that were responsible for bringing those pills into communities. The Post found that over a seven-year period from 2006-2012, over 76 billion pills of hydrocodone and oxycodone were shipped to pharmacies across the country, more than enough for one pill per person per day in some communities.
First Place: Unguarded; Bridget Balch, The Richmond Times-Dispatch
Guardianship, the legal process of taking away an adult’s rights to make life decisions, is intended to protect vulnerable people from neglect and abuse. In Richmond, VCU Health System and other health care providers have used the process to remove poor patients from hospital beds, sometimes against the wishes of family members, with the help of a local law firm. A year-long Richmond Times-Dispatch investigation -- which included analyzing more than 250 court cases and interviewing nearly three dozen people -- found that vulnerable patients lose their rights at the Richmond Circuit Court in brief hearings where they are rarely present nor have a lawyer to represent them.
Judges' comments: Through deep reporting and rich storytelling, the Richmond Times-Dispatch showed how VCU Health System had systematically used the guardianship system, which is intended to protect vulnerable people from neglect and abuse, to take away the legal rights of poor patients and force them from their hospital beds. In more than 90 percent of the cases reviewed, the same attorney was appointed to represent the best interests of patients in the guardianship proceeding and she had a close working relationship with the attorney representing VCU. The series was enlightening and anger making.
Second Place: Guilty no matter what; Mary Katherine Wildeman, The Post and Courier
South Carolina hospitals are using a loophole in state law to scoop millions of dollars a year from the pockets of the poorest of patients. It mostly takes place outside the courts and the public eye. A law originally written to help state and local governments collect debts is being used to seize tax refunds from people with past-due medical bills. The S.C. Department of Revenue does the legwork, and the cash flows straight into the coffers of some of the region’s largest health care companies.
This cash funnel, known as the Setoff Debt Program, operated for years out of the public eye before Post and Courier reporter Mary Katherine Wildeman began pressing for documents and answers about its operation. State officials tried to block her at every turn, and she spent months digging into the secretive program.
Third Place: Unaccountable; Lucille Sherman, Gatehouse Media/Gannett/The Oklahoman
In Oklahoma, midwives who deliver babies outside the hospital operate in the Wild West of legal landscapes. They are unregulated, untracked and largely unaccountable. As out-of-hospital births have gained popularity in the state, problems have continued unabated. Non-nurse midwives who oversee deliveries that result in babies’ deaths are not investigated or disciplined by any state agency. They continue to practice unmonitored and unchecked, putting mothers and babies in the state at risk. Reporter Lucille Sherman did something the state of Oklahoma would not: She counted each baby that died from a midwife-assisted, out-of-hospital birth for an entire year.
First Place: The Darwin Treatment; Roxanne Khamsi, Wired
When I heard in late 2017 that doctors in Florida were applying Darwin’s theory of natural selection to improve cancer treatment, I jumped on the story. It took me almost two years to report this feature piece. My article, which appeared in Wired magazine, describes how prostate cancer patients receiving the new, evolution-based treatment are living longer than expected while using half as much of a typically prescribed drug, which usually runs at $120,000 a year.
Judges' comments: Robert Gatenby and adaptive therapy for cancer are the subject of Roxanne Khamsi’s prize-winning feature for Wired Magazine. Freelancer Khamsi weaves explanation of this novel approach to cancer care with the personal story of Dr. Gatenby’s journey to his eureka moment. She also highlights how the adaptive therapy may prove to be gentler on cancer patients – and the health care system. Solid backgrounding and interviews with sources inform her narrative and provide readers with a smart but approachable understanding of this potential cancer care advance.
Second Place: Room 20; Joanne Faryon, Susan White, Millie Quan, Los Angeles Times
Room 20 is the story of an unidentified man who lay unconscious in a San Diego nursing home for 15 years, kept alive by tubes and machines. When investigative reporter Joanne Faryon first saw him, the sign above his bed identified him only as Sixty-Six Garage. Faryon learned about Garage in 2014, when she was working on a series about life support units pejoratively known as "vent farms." The nursing home believed he was an undocumented migrant involved in a crash while trying to cross the southern border, but knew little else. Faryon was also told that Garage was in a vegetative state. Faryon persuaded the nursing home to let her report on Garage, in the hope that someone might come forward with information about his identity. She got some leads, but no definitive answers. One day, early in 2015, Faryon was standing over Garage to see whether he looked like another man in a photo — someone who’d gone missing — when Garage smiled at her. Despite all the research she’d done into consciousness, knowing that a smile can be a reflex, she was convinced in that moment that the nursing home was wrong — that Garage was still in there. In 2015, Faryon quit her job to search full time for Garage’s identity and for details about his accident.
Third Place: Bill of the Month Series; Staff, Kaiser Health News
A bill for emergency dialysis $524,600 ― canceled. A bill for laughing gas during childbirth ― reduced tenfold. But $25,865 for a throat swab? Paid for and absorbed into ever-rising insurance premiums, at least until our investigation brought the hefty charge into the sunlight. What explains the exorbitant, confusing and absurd medical bills to which Americans have grown accustomed? What is a patient to do when hit with a surprise medical bill ― whether it’s a staggering half-million dollars or even a few thousand out of the blue?
In 2019, NPR and Kaiser Health News pushed to sort out the complexities of a crazy-quilt health system with our unique, crowdsourced “Bill of the Month” initiative. Partnering with our readers and listeners, KHN and NPR are using their medical bills as the foundation for a multimedia series that blends investigation, explanation and consumer education.
First Place: The World's First Known Person Who Naturally Beat HIV Goes Public; Bob Roehr, Leapsmag.com
The story traces the 27-year journey of a woman from diagnosis with HIV, through participation in research at leading research centers across the US as an HIV "elite controller," to the realization that her body likely has cleared the virus naturally, without any therapeutic interventions. It deals with the ongoing education of the subject to become a near peer in the research process, the evolving nature of HIV research, and the changing social context of the disease.
Judges' comments: This story traces the 27-year journey of a woman from her diagnosis with HIV through participation in research to the realization that her body likely has cleared the virus naturally. Though it could have benefitted from a little editing for length, it's an exquisitely-reported labor of love. The reporter chronicled the story for more than a decade, interviewing the main subject and researchers from across the nation who worked with her. This woman's experience sheds light on an important area of research with wide implications.
Second Place: Fighting for personal attendants at the state Capitol; Edgar Walters, The Texas Tribune Multimedia Team, The Texas Tribune
Edgar Walters, an investigative reporter at The Texas Tribune, was stuck with a difficult assignment during last year’s legislative session: covering a topic as dry as the state budget. Walters learned that at the start of the session, the House had a plan to spend $23 million on a pay raise for some personal attendants who help people with disabilities perform daily tasks, funded by Medicaid. (Even this sum would lead to only a negligible increase in attendants’ wages — about 10 cents an hour. Now, their base pay is about $8.)
He connected with advocate Susie Angel, an Austin woman with cerebral palsy, to learn more about what this would mean for Angel and others who need the support of these workers to live independently. The resulting piece juxtaposes Angel’s legislative advocacy with her own efforts to find and retain a personal attendant. It introduces readers to Sandy White, Angel’s attendant, and White’s struggle to make ends meet on a caregiver’s wage. And it contains thorough research and reporting on broader budget questions: With so many competing priorities, who should get a piece of the budget — and how do they make their case to legislators?
Third Place: Her Time; Katie Engelhart, The California Sunday Magazine
Journalist Katie Engelhart follows Debra Koosed, a 65-year-old dementia patient, on her journey to end her own life. Oregon, where Koosed lived, is the first state to legalize assisted suicide, but deliberately excludes people with dementia. In her reporting, Engelhart spent months speaking with more than 30 people connected to an underground right-to-die group called the Final Exit Network (FEN), which ultimately assisted Koosed with her suicide. Because her cognition varied by the day, Engelhart gained meaningful consent before every interview with Koosed, ultimately resulting in an intimate portrait of a woman confronting the most momentous decision of her life.
Health Policy (large)
First Place: Deadly Deliveries; Alison Young, John Kelly, Christopher Schnaars, USA Today
While much of the national discussion around the United States’ abysmal rate of maternal deaths and injuries has focused on the larger societal ills such as obesity and access to prenatal care, Deadly Deliveries zeroed in on one shocking and uncomfortable truth: Hospitals know how to protect mothers. They just aren’t doing it. Across the nation, women giving birth needlessly die and suffer life-altering injuries because of substandard medical care, the USA Today investigation revealed. USA Today's first-of-its-kind analysis of hospital billing data from 7 million births found that about one in eight hospitals have complication rates of at least double the norm.
Judges' comments: Maternal mortality in the U.S. has received much attention in the last several years, but USA Today’s “Deadly Deliveries” brings a new — and deeply disquieting — perspective to the topic. Piercing the secrecy that has shielded quality-of-care at individual hospitals, the paper identified 120 centers with high rates of severe, but often preventable, complications that can lead to injury or death. Strikingly, the investigation found that, contrary to past explanations blaming patient demographics for these complications, hospitals’ lax practices also played a significant role. The impact of the series goes beyond expose: The paper created an online database, making public records from 1,027 hospitals in 13 states. Additionally, a national accrediting agency has instituted new training and equipment requirements.
Second Place: No Mercy; Sarah Jane Tribble, Kaiser Health News
Rural America is plagued by poorer health, lower median incomes and higher rates of death than urban areas. Yet, more than a hundred rural hospitals have closed nationwide since 2010 and even more closures are expected in the coming years. Congress and state lawmakers have proposed solutions, knowing that reimbursement has not kept up with how people use America’s changing health care system, but no action has been taken. So, while Congress fails to act on proposed legislative solutions, the already shrinking communities lose vital jobs and much-needed health care services. Sarah Jane Tribble’s “No Mercy” series reveals what is at stake for these rural communities and families when federal dollars don’t match their needs.
Third Place: Cost of Dying; Blake Farmer, Nashville Public Radio
The reporting project started out with a look at the hospice industry and wound up being mostly about the increasing burden home hospice puts on unpaid, family caregivers. The first story reveals that hospice has become all the rage, but we're now starting to hear even some of the biggest boosters question whether hospice puts too much on families to care for loved ones at home
Health Policy (small)
First Place: The potent effects of Japan's stem cell policies; David Cyranoski, Nature
Patients around the world are getting duped into buying dodgy stem cell treatments, while governmental regulators play catch up. But in Japan dubious stem cell treatments are circulating in a darker and more disturbing way — with the full backing of the government. In 2014, the Japanese government created a new framework for regenerative medicine that laid out two pathways for unproven treatments to get to the clinic. The government hoped that loose regulations would bolster the industry — and they have.
Judges' comments: David Cyranoski tackled a difficult reporting task in a very difficult place to do reporting. He exposed an unregulated industry protected by the government. He went undercover to get honest and frightening answers from storefront purveyors and then pushed to get more answers from regulators, legislators and the industry even when blocked again and again.
Second Place: Healing Justice; Karen Bouffard, The Detroit News
"Healing Justice" was a two-day series that examined how improved mental health care in U.S. communities and prisons could reduce incarceration and recidivism rates, which are higher in America than anywhere in the world. My series was produced with support from the Association of Health Care Journalists’ European Health Study Fellowship, funded by The Commonwealth Fund. I undertook the project because the United States has the highest rates of incarceration and recidivism in the world.
Third Place: Sick, Broke and Left Behind; Luanne Rife, The Roanoke Times
The people living in Ballad Health’s service region die younger and have higher incidents of diseases and illicit drug use than elsewhere in the U.S. And those are just a few of the problems. Against this backdrop, the two primary hospital systems serving Virginia’s coalfields and Tennessee’s Tri-Cities region sought permission from the states to merge. Ballad Health was formed in 2018 after Virginia and Tennessee agreed to grant what amounts to a monopoly – despite the FTC’s objections -- but under the condition that Ballad do what neither legacy system had done: measurably improve the health of the people living in its region. No place else in the country has done anything on this scale. Luanne Rife set out to explore the economic and social conditions that play a role in community health and the efforts underway to improve health outcomes, and to see whether Ballad was meeting its mandates.
Public Health (large)
First Place: Deadly Germs, Lost Cures; Andrew Jacobs, Matt Richtel, The New York Times
Antibiotics and other antimicrobial drugs — miracle medicines that have saved tens of millions of lives since they became widely available in the 1940s — are losing their ability to cure. This is one of the gravest, most complex public health challenges facing humanity. Our series, “Deadly Germs, Lost Cures,” explained the economic and scientific forces behind it and the culture of secrecy that has blinded the public to the growing threat. The series, the product of a year of reporting, included 11 major articles; we are entering five of them in this contest.
Judges' comments: Wow. What a story. This is what health journalism is all about — reporting on an important, murky and largely unknown story, and doing it in a straightforward and understandable style. Terrific research and writing that beckons you into the story, then takes you by the hand to show you the entire world of research, politics and effects of resistant bugs. Our understanding before this was the drug resistance threat was from bacteria, from antibiotic overuse — it’s vitally important to understand the additional threat of fungal resistance. The public health side of this story is undeniable, and we loved how they took this story from American hospital rooms to the Nairobi slums to help connect the dots. Absolutely wonderful series. I will buy the book when it's done.
Second Place: Cancer Cloud; Brad Schmidt, The Oregonian/OregonLive
More than 400,000 public housing tenants live in areas at highest risk for indoor radon, our analysis found. Over a lifetime, breathing the radioactive gas makes lung cancer as likely as dying in a car crash. The federal government blares warnings to private homeowners, and tens of thousands have responded by installing specialized ventilation systems.
But when it comes to housing owned for the benefit of America’s poorest families, our investigation found that the government ignores its own advice. Cancer Cloud showed vulnerable people have been exposed to hazardous radon levels because local housing authorities refused to find and remove it. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development allowed it to happen, despite a legal mandate since 1988 to protect tenants from the radioactive gas. The result is a shameful disparity that disproportionately harms poor families and people of color.
Third Place: Viral lies: Facebook's health misinformation problem; Brandy Zadrozny, Aliza Nadi, NBC News
In thousands of Facebook groups dedicated to health and wellness, misinformation spreads rapidly. Members share fake stories of babies killed by vaccines. Parents post that they’ve “cured” their autistic children by feeding them bleach. These claims, and dozens of others, are untrue, but Facebook does little to stop them from reaching millions of users.
For nearly a year, NBC News reporter Brandy Zadrozny has investigated the ways in which health misinformation spreads online, particularly on Facebook. She traced the origins of persistent myths and examined who is benefitting from them and who is harmed. She profiled the parents and health advocates who are fighting these falsehoods. And she illustrated the devastating public health consequences when inaccuracies go unchecked.
Public Health (small)
First Place: Lessons from Abroad; Taylor Knopf, North Carolina Health News
For years, Taylor Knopf has reported on the drug-related deaths, diseases and losses that have resulted from the opioid crisis. Life expectancy in the United States has dropped two years in a row for the first time in more than 50 years, largely due to overdose deaths. While various groups of medical professionals and advocates have tried their best to fix the problem, the death count continued to rise. So Knopf wanted to know what it would take to end a drug crisis. With the help of a grant from the Solutions Journalism Network, Knopf spent a week and a half reporting in France and Switzerland, two countries that have a lot of experience dealing with addiction.
Judges' comments: While America struggles to contain the epidemic of drug-related deaths from opioids – from prescription painkillers to heroin – some other countries seem to have the problem licked. North Carolina Health News decided to find out how they did it. Using a grant from the Solutions Journalism Center, reporter Taylor Knopf visited France and Switzerland and came home armed with a controversial answer: Harm reduction. Along with a full array of treatment options, they offer drug consumption rooms and even prescription heroin. In Switzerland, Knopf reported, drug overdose deaths dropped by 64 percent, HIV infections dropped by 84 percent and home thefts dropped by a whopping 98 percent. The solutions that were described in Taylor’s series turn our assumptions upside-down. These stories were a delight to read, delivering one surprise after another. They surely forced all who read them to rethink the rules of public health and wonder how on earth such programs could ever be sold on this side of the Atlantic. A series in a small nonprofit news service can’t change public policy overnight. But it began a conversation that, with any luck, will continue. In “Lessons From Abroad,” North Carolina Health News punched way above its weight class.
Second Place: Mental Health: A Crisis in Colorado; Staff, The (Colorado Springs, Colo.) Gazette
With Mental Health: A Crisis in Colorado, The Gazette of Colorado Springs launched a year long-endeavor encompassing some two dozen major installments of stories, photos, videos, graphics and charts depicting the plummeting status of mental health care in one of the nation's most unique states. Despite 300 annual days of sun, a booming economy and an unparalleled reputation for physical fitness, Colorado’s residents rank among the most mentally ill people in the country. It’s estimated that about 20 percent of the state’s adult population — about 832,000 people — is living with some kind of mental health condition, according to a 2019 report from Mental Health America, and nearly 450,000 of them aren’t being treated for that illness. That singular crisis lies at the root of so many others: homelessness, poverty, substance abuse and violence. Colorado’s efforts to make health care effective, accessible and affordable have been inconsistent at best and a failure at worst.
Third Place: Kentucky’s 'too slow' response to the nation’s worst hepatitis A outbreak; Chris Kenning and Laura Ungar, The (Louisville, Ky.) Courier-Journal
The Courier-Journal’s investigative series on the vaccine-preventable disease hepatitis A revealed how state health leaders failed to stop a hepatitis A epidemic that ultimately developed into the largest and most deadly in the nation. Reporters found that Kentucky’s infectious disease chief, a top state public health nurse, were ringing the alarm when the disease started to spread outside of Louisville into impoverished rural Kentucky, which was challenged by thinly staffed county health departments and rampant drug use that fueled the disease. While the infectious disease chief argued for a powerful, $10 million state response and an emergency declaration, the new public health commissioner approved only $3 million and declined to declare an emergency.
First Place: Profiting from the Poor; Wendi C. Thomas, ProPublica/MLK 50: Justice Through Journalism
A grocery store clerk who made $9.05 an hour owed Memphis’ largest health care system more than $33,000. If she paid on her overdue hospital bill as ordered, she would be 90 years old by the time she’d satisfied her debt to Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare. The same hospital sued one of its own employees, a housekeeper, for more than $23,000 in unpaid bills, or more than a year’s pay. And it garnished the paycheck of a hotel clerk who sometimes went hungry because she didn’t have the money for food. To try to collect on unpaid hospital bills, Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare sued more than 8,300 people – many of them low-income – over a five-year period.
MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, working with ProPublica, documented how the nonprofit’s rapacious debt collection practices threw already financially precarious lives into disarray. In fact, the faith-based institution had become the most aggressive plaintiff suing people over unpaid debts in Shelby County, Tenn. Hospitals across the country sue patients, but few do so in a city as impoverished as Memphis.
Judges' comments: Judges were impressed with this series, which was nothing short of eye-opening. Hopefully this story will put many a nonprofit hospital CEO on notice about their hospitals’ collection practices, particularly those that hold themselves out as church-affiliated entities. The story will also hopefully shine a light on where other reporters can look locally to expose and hopefully ameliorate similar schemes in their own communities.
Second Place: Death by 1,000 clicks; Fred Schulte, Erika Fry, Kaiser Health News/Fortune
The three-part series revealed how a $36 billion federal program to shift from paper to electronic medical records has gone terribly wrong — exposing fraud, persistent corporate negligence, an utter lack of government oversight, and alarming safety issues that have plagued the nation’s electronic health records (EHRs), a technology that touches the life of virtually every American.
Third Place: Biologic drugs; John Fauber and Kevin Crowe, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Over the last 20 years, nearly two dozen powerful, immune-suppressing drugs that treat conditions such as psoriasis and rheumatoid arthritis have hit the market leading to booming sales and an unrelenting barrage of TV commercials. While the ads depict happy people with clear skin and “sexy elbows,” or dancing and playing basketball, there is an alarming, darker side to the drugs.
Known as biologic medications, or biologics, the drugs and a few others that compete in the same market can provide significant relief of symptoms, or even remission in some cases. But by suppressing the immune system, they expose patients to a greater risk of infection. An investigation by Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporters John Fauber and Kevin Crowe found that since 2004 the drugs were linked to reports of more than 34,000 deaths and more than 1 million adverse events, including nearly 500,000 that were deemed serious. Their reporting identified a key flaw in the approval process: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration often allows drug companies to test their products on healthier patients or against inferior treatments. But once on the real-world market, the drugs are used in patients who are more likely to suffer serious side effects or find that the drugs don’t work as well.
First Place: Killing of patient, allegations of dangerous care haunt South L.A. psychiatric hospital; Lucas Manfield, Columbia University, for Los Angeles Times
Jacob Masters was killed in a South Los Angeles psychiatric hospital in 2017 and one of his roommates was charged with murder. Inspectors later found that the tragedy was a result of a series of errors by hospital staff. After reviewing inspection records and legal filings, I found that hospital administrators were slow to address safety issues at the facility and had been accused of covering them up.
Judges comments: This story is well written and deeply reported, including the use of hospital inspection records obtained via public-records requests, and legal documents in court cases involving the hospital. The vividly detailed account also demonstrates good editing and mentoring from the school and the newspaper, which is how it ought to work. We agreed early on in the judging that this entry stood above the rest, for its powerful storytelling and authoritative, well-sourced presentation.
Second Place: 123 have unexpectedly died in nursing homes, but Arizona still gives them top grades; Staff, Arizona State University Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, for The Arizona Republic
Arizona is one of a few states in the U.S. that uses its own ranking system for its nursing homes along with the federal ranking system provided by Medicare. While both systems use the same data, Arizona’s ranking system has proven far more lenient than the federal tool, and some of the highest rated homes in the state have shown questionable safety records with wrongful death lawsuits on their records. The department is still unable to properly define how its rating system, which uses the same data presented in the Medicare tool, gives considerably higher grades to its homes. The headline of our story sums up our key finding: 123 have unexpected died in nursing homes, but Arizona still gives them top grades.
Third Place: Improving the health of ‘invisible’ farmworkers is a community effort in Willcox; Sabine Galvis, Anikka Abbott, Megan Marples, Arizona State University Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, for Cronkite News
Access to health treatment is a challenge in isolated agricultural communities, where most farmworkers may be uninsured and many have limited English language skills. Digital reporter Sabine Galvis traveled to southern Arizona and conducted interviews in English and Spanish with Latino agricultural workers, nonprofit volunteers and migrant health experts to understand the barriers workers face to access health care. She not only exposed the problems farmworkers face, but wrote a solutions story about a health education center that is providing better health care access in rural areas and creating a community for the local workers who were disconnected before.