Marilyn Boyd, photographed in June 2019, was a Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare worker who received care through the hospital system for chronic abdominal pain. She owed Methodist more than $23,000, including around $5,800 in attorney’s fees. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50

MLK50: Justice Through Journalism and ProPublica’s “Profiting from the Poor” series is a winner of a National Association of Black Journalists Salute to Excellence Award in the online news category. 

The investigative series, written by MLK50 founder and editor Wendi C. Thomas as part of ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network, exposed the predatory debt collection practices of Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare, the largest health care system in Memphis. Thomas showed how Methodist was suing and garnishing the wages of thousands of low-income patients, including many of its own employees, for unpaid hospital bills.

The annual NABJ awards program was live-streamed on Saturday, and presented awards in a wide range of categories, including for newspapers, television, radio, and magazines.

Thomas began her investigation for “Profiting from the Poor” with a question that has long haunted Memphis, the second-poorest large city in the nation: What keeps poor people poor? Over a five-year period, Thomas found that the faith-based Methodist sued more than 8,300 patients for unpaid hospital bills. The lawsuits made it hard, if not impossible, for people to make ends meet. 

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. The hospital also pledged to increase 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 patients.

A full list of NABJ Salute to Excellence Award winners can be found here.

This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by these generous donors.

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