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ProPublica and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Win AHCJ Award for Excellence in Health Care Journalism

The Association of Health Care Journalists announced this week that ProPublica won a first-place honor, a second-place honor, a third-place honor and an honorable mention in its Awards for Excellence in Health Care Journalism.

With Every Breath,” a collaboration with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, won first place in the business category. ProPublica reporter Debbie Cenziper and Post-Gazette reporters Michael D. Sallah, Michael Korsh and Evan Robinson-Johnson joined forces to expose how global powerhouse Philips Respironics concealed thousands of complaints about a dangerous defect in its popular breathing machines over the course of a decade. The investigative team, which included students from Northwestern University’s Medill Investigative Lab, also revealed that the Food and Drug Administration had received warnings about unexplained contaminants in the machines years before the global giant announced a massive recall, but the agency repeatedly failed to warn the public or dig deeper into the company’s lagging response.

Following the investigation, federal lawmakers called for an immediate criminal probe of Philips, and the Government Accountability Office said it will launch an inquiry into the FDA’s oversight of medical device recalls for the first time in years. In January, Philips Respironics said it will stop selling sleep apnea machines and other respiratory devices in the United States under a settlement with the federal government that will all but end the company’s reign as one of the country’s top makers of breathing machines.

Philips has said that new testing shows the machines pose no “appreciable harm.” The company also has said it reviewed the complaints on a case-by-case basis and gave them to the FDA after the recall out of an “abundance of caution.” The FDA has asked Philips to conduct additional testing.

Roots of an Outbreak” by Caroline Chen, Irena Hwang and Al Shaw won second place in the public health category for large newsrooms. The reporters exposed how the next pandemic could be just a forest clearing away, but we’re not even trying to prevent it. With vivid storytelling, interactive apps and stunning graphic explainers, the series showed how deforestation increases the risk of deadly viruses spilling over from animals to humans. The stories transported readers to Guinea, Madagascar and Australia, complete with cinemagraphs and drone footage for a bird’s-eye view of the changing landscape. In addition, reporters customized epidemiological models to spotlight places at increased risk of an outbreak.

Uncovered” won third place in the investigative category for large newsrooms for exposing the inner workings of health insurers as they avoided paying for expensive care. In collaboration with The Capitol Forum, ProPublica revealed that Cigna built a system that allows its medical directors to instantly reject a claim without opening a patient’s file.

The series led to wide-ranging impact. In response to the Cigna story, the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the Department of Labor both launched inquiries into Cigna’s policies, while state insurance commissioners are also examining this program. And lawyers filed class-action suits against Cigna in California and Connecticut. The series also unearthed a recorded call in which UnitedHealthcare officials laughed when discussing a decision to reject a lifesaving treatment for a Penn State University student. Just days after the story ran, United settled a lawsuit brought by the student. The series also empowered readers to find out why their own care was denied, and many health plans wound up reversing course and approving treatment, including covering drugs needed for two babies with brain cancer.

Co-published with The New Yorker, “Inside the Secretive World of Penile Enlargement” by ProPublica reporter Ava Kofman earned an honorable mention in the consumer feature category for large newsrooms. The investigation took a measured look at a little-known but highly lucrative medical procedure that had long been dismissed as tabloid bait unworthy of government scrutiny or serious media attention. Kofman’s viral expose changed that.

See all the Awards for Excellence in Health Care Journalism winners.

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