Effective journalism can change minds and policies: That’s the message in social media posts from national news outlets, healthcare experts, policy makers and local audience members who are applauding investigative reporting by MLK50-ProPublica that led to Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare erasing the debts of more than 6,500 patients it had sued for medical bills.

The Profiting From the Poor series examined how the nonprofit hospital, affiliated with the United Methodist Church, used the court system and its in-house collection agency to go after poor patients for hospital bills. The hospital filed more than 8,300 lawsuits between 2014 and 2018, even taking its own low-wage employees to court and garnishing their pay.

The stories about the hospital’s practices drew harsh reactions on social media, and a few days later the hospital announced it would suspend court collections for unpaid hospital bills. On June 30, major reforms were revealed, including:

  • a more generous financial assistance policy;
  • the hospital would no longer accept court-ordered interest, nor collect attorney fees nor court costs from patients;
  • Methodist would raise its minimum wage to $13.50 an hour by mid-September and $15 an hour by January 2021.

Then MLK50-ProPublica broke a story on Sept. 24 that Methodist was filing “case satisfied” notices in Shelby County General Sessions Court faster than the staff could process them, wiping away the patients’ debts.

That story and others in the Profiting From the Poor series sparked conversations and spotlighted the power of journalism.

Josh Stearns, director of the Public Square Program at Democracy Fund, tweeted that investing in journalism is investing in communities.

Farai Chideya, a noted journalist, author and writer-in-residence at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute of New York University, wrote in an article in Essence magazine that although most newsrooms led by people of color have fewer than five employees, they have a huge impact on communities.

“Newsrooms run by Latinx reporters and communities of color, like MLK50, are transforming our nation and the world,” Chideya wrote.

National news outlets such Capital Public Radio, NPR and Politico have shared the story, underlining the importance of local investigative journalism, as did have local readers.

Ron Nixon, an Associated Press editor, was among those who cheered the changes investigative reporting brought to Memphians.

One reader, who applauded the series, called the hospital’s collections “egregious.”

Local reporting counts

Locally, reporters, citizens and public policy advocates cheered the effect the series had on the hospital’s decision to cancel the debt of patients like Carrie Barrett, whose story resonated with readers. The 63-year-old part-time Kroger employee’s $12,019 bill from Methodist for a heart catheterization swelled to more than $33,000 because of interest and court costs.

A photo of her shouting in church to show her joy over being relieved of the debt captured the hearts of some readers, even other journalists.

“What this photo represents makes me cry,” tweeted Sarah Macaraeg, a reporter with The Commercial Appeal.

“Justice is what love looks like in public,” Josh Spickler, executive director of Just City, said on his Twitter feed.

The experts applaud transformation

Healthcare outlets Health Leaders Media and Kaiser Health News shared the MLK50-ProPublica story, as did Nonprofit Quarterly, which emphasized how many low-income people would benefit from the debt erasure. NPQ also underlined how a nonprofit newsroom stopped a charitable hospital from suing low-income patients.

Community Catalyst pointed out the sheer scope of Methodist’s decision is beyond what they have seen in similar cases.

Philanthropy News Digest’s opinion blog reminded followers thousands of patients would benefit from the hospital stopping collections.

Even the Shelby County Public Defender’s office cheered the series:

Now we’re talking

Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris praised Methodist’s decision to raise its minimum wage, another major change for the hospital, after the series was published.

Meanwhile, readers shared the story in the context of universal healthcare and the cost of medical care.

One local pointed out the series could affect current and would-be donors to the hospital.

And the fight isn’t over. MLK50-ProPublica continues to call for area residents to share their stories about hospitals, doctors, and other Memphis institutions that aggressively sue low-income debtors, as part of an extended reporting effort.

Have you been sued by a local debt collector? Share your story with MLK50-ProPublica by emailing memphis@propublica.org, text or call 347–244–2134, or messaging @MLK50Memphis on Twitter.

Follow the Profiting from the Poor series here.

This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit reporting project on economic justice in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by the Surdna Foundation, the Southern Documentary Project and Community Change.