This year, STAT deepened its footholds in a number of coverage areas, from hospitals and insurance to reproductive health to health tech. Our staff also looked with admiration — and some envy — to many other journalists doing great reporting in these spaces.
Below is our annual list of STAT staffers’ favorite stories of the year, and that we wish we had written. (Also check out the jealousy list from Bloomberg Businessweek, which had the idea first.)
They Were Entitled to Free Care. Hospitals Hounded Them to Pay.
By Jessica Silver-Greenberg and Katie Thomas, New York Times
The New York Times has done a lot of great reporting lately on not-for-profit hospital systems, which are expected to earn their tax exemptions by providing a variety of community benefits. Chief among them: free or discounted care for low-income patients, otherwise known as charity care. The problem is, many hospitals are very bad at letting patients know whether they qualify.
In Providence’s case, the reporters found that the health system had actually devised a program of aggressively pursuing debt collection on patients who should have had their bills forgiven because of their income levels. Federal law doesn’t dictate how much charity care hospitals must provide, but Washington state, where Providence is based, does have a minimum threshold. The state’s attorney general sued Providence, alleging the system is violating that law.
Since more than half of the country’s hospitals are not-for-profit, this kind of reporting that shows they’ve become almost indistinguishable from for-profit companies is essential. These practices deserve to be scrutinized.
— Submitted by Tara Bannow
Merck locates frozen batch of undisclosed Ebola vaccine, will donate for testing in Uganda’s outbreak
By Jon Cohen, Science
Sometimes you choose an article for the envy list because it explores a really fascinating topic, or because the writing makes your heart soar. Sometimes other things are the impetus — like the sheer annoyance of having been beaten to a story you know you should have and could have gotten.
The latter explains my submission to STAT’s 2022 envy list: Jon Cohen’s article revealing that Merck had discovered it has 100,000 hitherto forgotten doses of an Ebola Sudan vaccine the world badly needed to test in Uganda to 1) determine if it is effective and 2) potentially help contain the outbreak. (Uganda appears to have stopped the outbreak the old-fashioned way.)
I’d written extensively about the Ebola Zaire vaccine that Merck tested and brought through licensure during and after the West African Ebola crisis. I knew Merck had announced it would not pursue development of other Ebola or Marburg vaccines. So when the WHO started looking for Ebola Sudan vaccines to test in Uganda this fall, I thought: No point asking Merck.
— Submitted by Helen Branswell
The Private Equity Giant KKR Bought Hundreds Of Homes For People With Disabilities. Some Vulnerable Residents Suffered Abuse And Neglect.
By Kendall Taggart, John Templon, Anthony Cormier, and Jason Leopold, BuzzFeed News
There’s been a lot of good reporting out there about private equity’s impact on the health care industry this year, but this piece examining one private equity firm’s ownership of group homes for people with severe intellectual and developmental disabilities from BuzzFeed’s now-disbanded investigations team is a standout.
The sheer documentation of KKR’s tenure owning BrightSpring is astonishing — more than 170 interviews, more than 100 inspection reports, shocking video evidence of mistreatment that BuzzFeed sued to obtain, and internal documents about the company’s damage control efforts.
The reporters on this project flawlessly integrated nitty-gritty details of the business side with powerful details about patients’ experiences. The whole project was underpinned by intense analysis that enabled data-driven comparisons of BrightSpring with other group homes.
— Submitted by Rachel Cohrs
Behind the Scenes, McKinsey Guided Companies at the Center of the Opioid Crisis
By Chris Hamby and Michael Forsythe, New York Times
We know, at this point, how much work drug companies put into selling opioids. But what was less known was how much one big consulting firm, McKinsey & Company, was involved. This story helps reiterate that such events rarely happen in a bubble.
— Submitted by Allison DeAngelis
David Milch Still Has Stories to Tell
By Dave Itzkoff, New York Times
Those of us who cover the pharmaceutical industry have spent a lot of time this past year writing about Alzheimer’s disease, specifically the academic debate over what it means to delay the advance of dementia by a matter of months, as a new medicine appears to do. This story finds David Milch, author of a great many television shows and a wondrously colorful life, about seven years removed from his diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. His disease threatens to rob him of his memories, leaving him each day a little less himself than he was before. So he is writing a memoir, with the help of family and friends, from the assisted-living facility where he lives. Itzkoff’s story is a warm but never saccharine portrait of life “on a boat sailing to some island where I don’t know anybody,” as Milch puts it, “a boat someone is operating, and we aren’t in touch.”
— Submitted by Damian Garde
A Woman Wanted an Abortion to Save One of Her Twins. She Had to Travel 1,000 Miles.
By Carter Sherman, Vice
She Wasn’t Ready for Children. A Judge Wouldn’t Let Her Have an Abortion.
By Lizzie Presser, New York Times Magazine
Jealous isn’t quite the right word, but these are two powerful, often upsetting articles that highlight the immense implications of abortion restrictions. One focuses on the journey of a woman pregnant with twins, one of which had severe abnormalities that both meant it wouldn’t survive, and put both the twin and mother in severe danger. She had to travel more than 1,000 miles for medical care to protect both herself and the fetus with a chance of survival.
A second piece, in the New York Times, tells the story of a 17-year-old who was denied an abortion by a judge who ruled that she was mature enough to become a mother, but not mature enough to make the decision to have an abortion.
— Submitted by Olivia Goldhill
100 Million People in America Are Saddled With Health Care Debt
By Noam N. Levey, Kaiser Health News
Kaiser Health News and NPR are well-known for the “Bill of the Month” that highlights someone’s absurd medical bill and reflects how each particular bill is a microcosm of a problem in the health care system. This series builds on that project in an obvious, but profound, way. It examines the cruel aftermath of those medical bill stories, and Noam Levey and his team don’t shy away from smacking the audience with the “true extent and burden” of medical debt: “The picture is bleak.”
An immense amount of work went into this package, and it gives everyone a round figure that now will be difficult to forget: 100 million people, or roughly 1 in 3 Americans, are swimming in debt from their or someone else’s care. The lead story was a springboard that led to other observations: Health care providers are no longer just suing patients who are or were in debt, but also those patients’ family members and friends; medical debt perpetuates long-standing racism in many communities; and naturally financiers are getting rich when patients feel pressured to put their bills on credit cards.
Almost all of us either know someone who has suffered under the weight of health care bills, or experienced it ourselves as deductibles seemingly rise every year. It is always in front of us. But this series illustrates the magnitude of the problem in new ways, and is a reminder for us all that medical debt in this system is not a matter of if, but when.
— Submitted by Bob Herman
Kids with ‘bubble boy’ disease are dying — even though drug companies have found a cure
By Andrew Dunn, Insider
There is a terrible genetic disease called SCID that leaves children extremely vulnerable to infections. Scientists have developed a gene therapy that can restore patients’ immune systems and that is effectively a cure for the condition. Problem solved, right? Not with the way our biopharma system works. As Dunn writes, the companies behind the treatment didn’t see making a profit from it because there are so few SCID patients, so they abandoned the therapy. It’s a worrisome turn that could leave patients with other very rare diseases high and dry, because companies won’t want to spend the fortunes to develop treatments for these conditions if they’re not going to reap a bigger fortune in return. Dunn’s story highlights how our capability to treat inherited diseases — a biological game-changer — is outpacing our ability to figure out how to incentivize companies to pursue them and how to afford them — an economic conundrum. It’s a devastating reminder that at the end of the day, companies need to see dollar signs, not just lives saved, if they’re going to develop medications.
— Submitted by Andrew Joseph
Prescription Weight Loss Drugs Are Working, If You Can Get One
By Emma Court, Bloomberg
This was the year powerful injectable obesity drugs began changing medicine. Most outlets began noticing in the last few months, with reports of widespread use among the movie star set and — not entirely unrelated — reports of widespread shortages. But Emma Court was on the story almost a full year ago, detailing with sharp clarity one of the fundamental issues the medical system will likely be wrestling with for years to come: A mismatch between patients who want these medicines, data that suggests the drugs may indeed stave off serious health issues, and doctors and insurers who refuse to prescribe or cover them.
— Submitted by Jason Mast
Many Pacific Islanders Have to Move to Get Life-Saving Access to Dialysis
By Anita Hofschneider, Honolulu Civil Beat
Anita Hofschneider, of the online nonprofit news organization Honolulu Civil Beat, covers the health issues of Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders with depth and compassion. In a series she wrote this year, she chronicled the challenges many residents of the Hawaiian islands face to get the dialysis they need. This story, about residents of the Northern Mariana Islands, where one in five of the island’s Indigenous Chamorros have diabetes, is especially troubling: Many patients must move to receive treatment, since the island chain has only one dialysis clinic. Hofschneider’s work sheds light on a community that has massive health disparities yet goes largely uncovered by the national media. Her work also shows the importance, and power, of increasing diversity of newsroom staff: Hofschneider is Pacific Islander, originally from the Northern Mariana Islands.
— Submitted by Usha Lee McFarling
The Unwritten Laws of Physics for Black Women
By Katrina Miller, Wired
“I never came here to be a trailblazer — I just wanted to be a physicist.”
If you would like to read a crushing but beautiful reported first-person essay, let it be this piece by Katrina Miller. In it, she traces her lineage as a Black female physics Ph.D. student at UChicago, weaving together the stories of the very few women who came before her with her own journey through physics.
I’ll come clean about the fact that I’m friends with Katrina, but this piece would have made it onto the top of my list anyway for how seemingly effortlessly she layers together the scenes in this narrative. You don’t have to take my word for it, either; notable science writer Ed Yong shared the piece, saying, “This is a superb and important piece by @__katrinarenee. She ends by saying she’s embarking on a new journey as a writer, and if the strength of this piece is any indication, that’s a very smart move.”
— Submitted by Brittany Trang
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