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Journalists, We’re Sharing Our Tips From Patients With Medical Debt. Want Them?

Stories about aggressive debt collection are leading to real change, and we want to see more of them. Let us give you our leads from across the country.

After an investigation by MLK50 and ProPulica, Methodist LeBonheur Healthcare announced it would stop suing its poorest patients and erased the debt of more than 6,500 people. (Andrea Morales for MLK50)

ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for ProPublica’s Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published.

In Memphis, Tennessee, we’ve found evidence that hospitals are aggressively suing patients who can’t afford to pay lofty medical bills. Dozens more people — including patients, their family members and lawyers from at least 25 states — have been writing to tell us about other institutions hounding their communities for money.

In Coffeyville, Kansas, where the poverty rate is double the national average, we found that at least 11 people were arrested in the past year after unpaid medical bills, and we analyzed more than 30 arrest warrants, some for bills as low as $230.

We know Coffeyville and Memphis are just two examples of these pervasive medical billing practices, and we can’t follow up on all of the tips we’ve gotten by ourselves. That’s where you come in. We’d like to share some of them with journalists in other newsrooms. We’re hoping more of you will report on aggressive medical collection practices in the communities you cover.

These tips are critical to finding and exposing these practices. In order for MLK50, a newsroom in ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network, and ProPublica to explain how the billing practices of the Memphis-based Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare were harming patients, we needed help from Carrie Barrett. Barrett was sued by the nonprofit hospital system for $12,019 in 2007 after a two-night stay. By the time we connected with her in 2019, the hospital had added interest to that sum seven times and garnished her paycheck on 15 occasions. She owed about $33,000, or twice what she earned the previous year.

After Wendi Thomas of MLK50 told Barrett’s story, the hospital said it would end those practices and forgave more than 6,500 debts, including hers.

If you’re a journalist in a newsroom who would like to get tips about aggressive hospital collection practices in the communities you work with, sign up below.

Once you write in, we’ll let you know if we have a story from the state you cover and, if so, connect you with the participant. We’re also happy to give some reporting guidance. To start: Here’s a breakdown on how we tallied medical debt in Memphis. We also have datasets on doctors’ profits, surgeons’ quality and ER violations that might be helpful.

If you end up publishing a story using these tips, we ask that you share this questionnaire with your readers so we can continue generating more leads. You’ll get access to those new tips, too.

Otherwise, if you or someone you know has faced aggressive hospital billing practices, please tell us about it.

Got questions? Talk to Maya Miller.

Maya Miller

Maya Miller is an engagement reporting fellow with the Local Reporting Network. She works with journalists across the country on community-centered investigations.

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