MLK50: Justice Through Journalism founding editor Wendi C. Thomas will continue reporting on systems that keep poor people poor in her second year as part of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network, which supports accountability journalism.

Thomas joins 12 other local reporters across the country in the third year of this initiative, which begins Jan. 1. Another seven projects are already underway, bringing the total number of reporters in the network, as of Jan. 1, to 20.

Thomas’ tenacious, in-depth reporting continues to leave a mark in Memphis and inform the public conversation on medical debt nationally.

“The impact of MLK50’s investigation into the collections practices of Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare was profound confirmation of its mission: Justice Through Journalism,” said Tom Jones, a principal with Smart City Consulting and long-time journalist, on the impact of Thomas’ reporting about medical billing practices.

This year, MLK50, a nonprofit news organization in Memphis, and ProPublica reported on how the area’s largest hospital system sued and garnished the wages of thousands of poor patients, including its own employees, for unpaid medical debts. The nonprofit faith-based hospital system subsequently announced it would curtail its lawsuits, zeroed out the balances owed by more than 5,200 patients and reduced bills for more than 2,200 others, according to a hospital spokesperson.

Methodist also said it would raise the minimum wage it pays employees, dramatically expand its financial assistance policy for hospital care and stop suing its employees for unpaid medical debts.

A separate investigation into the private equity-owned doctor’s group, Knoxville-based TeamHealth, led the company to announce it would stop suing patients and end its pursuit of existing lawsuits. The company contracts with doctors who staff emergency rooms at four Baptist Memorial Hospital facilities in the region.

“The coverage not only transformed the lives of thousands of Memphians, but it rippled far beyond Memphis, producing changes and driving reporting on the issue in other cities. Put simply, it is indispensable reading,” Jones said.

Other newsrooms and reporters for the general subject Local Reporting Network include:

  • Anchorage Daily News | (Anchorage, Alaska) — Kyle Hopkins
  • Bay City News Foundation (Oakland, Calif.) — Scott Morris
  • Honolulu Star-Advertiser (Honolulu) — Sophie Cocke
  • New Mexico In Depth (Albuquerque, N.M.) — Bryant Furlow
  • Pine Tree Watch (Hallowell, Maine) — Samantha Hogan

The state government-based projects will come from:

  • Asbury Park Press (Neptune, N.J.) — Andrew Ford
  • Arizona Daily Star (Tucson) — Amy Silverman
  • The Desert Sun (Palm Springs, Calif.) — Janet Wilson
  • Honolulu Star-Advertiser (Honolulu) — Rob Perez
  • The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun (North Carolina) — Carli Brosseau
  • Richmond Times-Dispatch (Richmond, Va.) — Patrick Wilson
  • WBEZ (Chicago) — Shannon Heffernan

The state-focused reporting partnerships are made possible by a grant from Emerson Collective.

Participating reporters collaborate with ProPublica senior editors as they embark on investigative journalism within their communities. ProPublica reimburses one year’s salary and benefits for each of the participating reporters and also supports projects with its expertise in data, research and engagement elements of the work.

Topics will include health care, courts, pollution, criminal justice, political influence and regulatory oversight.

The ProPublica Local Reporting Network kicked off in January 2018.

“It’s heartening to see so many news organizations that want to dig into serious issues in their local communities,” ProPublica Deputy Managing Editor Charles Ornstein said. “We’re excited to give them the time, resources and support to do just that. At a time of cutbacks in our industry, we need more accountability reporting, not less.”

ProPublica also announced that senior reporter T. Christian Miller will become a senior editor, overseeing a group of local projects. Miller shared the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting with Ken Armstrong, then of The Marshall Project (and now a ProPublica senior reporter), for coverage of sexual assault, including “An Unbelievable Story of Rape.”

In addition to the impact of Thomas’ reporting on the use of courts to pursue medical debts by local healthcare providers, the Local Reporting Network has seen extraordinary results elsewhere in its first two years.

In Indiana last year, the South Bend Tribune, working with Armstrong, reported on how police officers in Elkhart beat a handcuffed man and about how the police chief promoted officers despite records of discipline. As a result of those articles, the police chief was forced to resign, an independent investigation was launched, and the officers involved in the beating were criminally charged. The mayor of Elkhart also abandoned his re-election effort. An independent investigation recently validated the reporting and recommended changes.

The Anchorage Daily News, in a first-of-its-kind investigation, found that one in three communities in Alaska has no local law enforcement: no state troopers to stop an active shooter, no village police officers to break up family fights, not even untrained city or tribal cops to patrol the streets. Following that coverage, U.S. Attorney General William P. Barr visited Alaska and later declared a state of emergency, releasing millions in federal funds to devote to the problem.

About ProPublica

ProPublica is an independent, nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest. With a team of more than 100 dedicated journalists, ProPublica covers a range of topics, focusing on stories with the potential to spur real-world impact. Since it began publishing in 2008, ProPublica has received five Pulitzer Prizes, five Peabody Awards, three Emmy Awards, seven George Polk Awards and five Online News Association Awards for general excellence.

This article was produced in partnership with MLK50, which is a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network. ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up to receive our biggest stories as soon as they’re published.

This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and public policy. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by the Surdna Foundation, the Southern Documentary Project at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture and Community Change. Sign up for our newsletter.