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.
Stanford economist James Hamilton has calculated that every dollar invested in journalism produces hundreds of dollars in public benefits for society. Stories like this prove that out. https://t.co/q5RfY4BOjc
— Josh Stearns (@jcstearns) September 25, 2019
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.
— Farai Chideya (@farai) September 19, 2019
This is the power of damn good reporting. https://t.co/7eT0IoSxb5
— laura (a crab) (@imjustacrab) September 25, 2019
Ron Nixon, an Associated Press editor, was among those who cheered the changes investigative reporting brought to Memphians.
— nixonron (@nixonron) September 26, 2019
This is powerful. Strong investigative journalism led to thousands getting their hospital debt zeroed out. Great news. https://t.co/6JapZHKXhn
— WEAR A MASK WASH YOUR HANDS Kelly Kessler 🏳️🌈 (@kesslerpots) September 24, 2019
One reader, who applauded the series, called the hospital’s collections “egregious.”
This & below underscores why projects like @MLK50Memphis must be supported. @wendi_c_thomas‘s reporting exposed Methodist Le Bonheur’s egregious debt collection practices harming low-income ppl in TN. Now the health system is erasing much of that debt. https://t.co/4cOVYAwPrT https://t.co/ph5xfrO4nd
— Kathy Melley (@KathyMelley) September 25, 2019
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.
What this photo represents makes me cry. Imagine 6,500 other people who feel the same relief & vindication. That’s a town 3x the size of where I was born—For whom @wendi_c_thomas/@MLK50Memphis got the job DONE. While reminding us all: What we do matters. https://t.co/rwuwaUPv4B
— Sarah 〽️acaraeg (@SeraMak) September 26, 2019
Insightful #journalism makes a massive difference in the lives of thousands. Here @propublica and @MLK50Memphis told how a #Memphis hospital sued poor patients for obscene amounts. After the stories appeared, the debt for 6500 people was erased.https://t.co/xJmsdSy0Gm
— Bonnie Britt (@editndesign) September 27, 2019
“Justice is what love looks like in public,” Josh Spickler, executive director of Just City, said on his Twitter feed.
— Josh Spickler (@joshspickler) September 25, 2019
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.
— Nonprofit Quarterly (@npquarterly) September 26, 2019
Community Catalyst pointed out the sheer scope of Methodist’s decision is beyond what they have seen in similar cases.
What we’re hearing about @MethodistHlth‘s decision to clear 6,500+ debt from patients it sued via Jessica Curtis, a senior advisor at @HealthPolicyHub … Read the story in 8 minutes at https://t.co/17bRiN0Ewq. pic.twitter.com/5F0EQ0mjnb
— MLK50: Justice Through Journalism (@MLK50Memphis) September 25, 2019
Philanthropy News Digest’s opinion blog reminded followers thousands of patients would benefit from the hospital stopping collections.
After an investigation by @MLK50Memphis and @ProPublica, Methodist Le Bonheur #Healthcare is erasing debt for unpaid hospital bills owed by more than 6,500 patients https://t.co/tCaQ2lu9wR #medicaldebt #TN
— PhilanTopic (@pndblog) September 25, 2019
Even the Shelby County Public Defender’s office cheered the series:
— Shelby Co Public Def (@DefendShelbyCo) September 27, 2019
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.
Shelby County @MayorLeeHarris says paying a livable wage should be SOP, so good on @MethodistHlth and @uofmemphis, catch up. Read more on today’s developments at https://t.co/RPXszG1eJ5. #livingwage #profitingfromthepoor pic.twitter.com/T3QClmHgpZ
— Wendi C. Thomas (@wendi_c_thomas) July 30, 2019
Meanwhile, readers shared the story in the context of universal healthcare and the cost of medical care.
As #GOP refuses 2 commit $ they control 2 Affordable Healthcare, Memphis Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare relieves underprivileged from excessive charges & fees. This kind act will benefit the local economy & resident health😃
WTG @MLK50Memphis @propublicahttps://t.co/Mj7nYxcrew
— Max Schlossberg (@TurfTwits) September 26, 2019
“The dead cannot cry out for justice. It is the duty of the living to do so for them.” (Lois McMaster Bujold) Special thanks to you, @wendi_c_thomas for being the champion that stirred the winds of grace & mercy to release 6,500 from crippling medical expenses. #TGBTG #MLK50 https://t.co/yNO7Byrtl6
— Charlton L. Johnson (@iPress2ward) September 24, 2019
One local pointed out the series could affect current and would-be donors to the hospital.
Perfect! And these are great accomplishments to shout-out to prospective donors. Great work!
— Caron Byrd (@carondbyrd) September 25, 2019
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 firstname.lastname@example.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.