The USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism announced Monday that Wendi C. Thomas, editor of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, is the winner of the Selden Ring Award for Investigative Reporting. She was honored for her series “Profiting From the Poor” — a collaboration with the ProPublica Local Reporting Network — which exposed the predatory debt collection practices of Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare, the largest health care system in Memphis, Tennessee. Thomas showed how Methodist was suing and garnishing the wages of thousands of patients, including many of its own employees, for unpaid hospital bills.
The ProPublica series “The TurboTax Trap,” which revealed that TurboTax was selling millions of taxpayers a service they could have received for free, and “The Quiet Rooms” from ProPublica Illinois and the Chicago Tribune, which exposed the overuse of “isolated timeout” in schools throughout Illinois, were the two finalists for the Selden Ring Award.
Hospitals across the country sue patients, but few do so in a city as impoverished as Memphis. It is the second-poorest large city in the nation, where one in four residents lives below the poverty line and more than 40% of workers earn less than $15 an hour. Over a five-year period, the faith-based Methodist sued more than 8,300 people for unpaid hospital bills. The lawsuits made it hard, if not impossible, for poor people to make ends meet.
Thomas, who is the only full-time employee of the nonprofit digital outlet MLK50, began her investigation with a question that has long haunted Memphis: What keeps poor people poor? Week after week for five months, Thomas sat and took notes as hospital defendants appeared in court. In the hallway, many agreed to an interview later and gave Thomas their phone number or email address. To gain their trust, she spent time in their homes and their churches; to tell their stories, she expertly wove details of their lives with courtroom observations.
Hospital officials stonewalled interview requests and refused to answer dozens of questions. Court administrators provided years’ worth of court records electronically, but ProPublica’s data team discovered that the records were incomplete. It took weeks of manual work to assemble a full picture of how many people were being sued.
Days after the stories ran, Methodist suspended its lawsuits against poor patients. It launched a 30-day review and announced sweeping changes that included dramatically augmenting its financial assistance policies, doubling the threshold at which people qualify for discounted or free care; curtailing lawsuits against its own employees and anyone, regardless of insurance status, whose household income is less than 250% of the federal poverty line; and increasing the wages of its lowest-paid workers to at least $15 an hour by 2021. All told, Methodist forgave nearly $12 million in debts owed by thousands of patients.
Learn more about the Selden Ring Award here.