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California Watch 'Decoding Prime' series honored with Polk award

I am privileged and honored to write today that the Center for Investigative Reporting’s California Watch has won the George Polk Award for our multi-platform series on aggressive billing practices at a Southern California hospital chain, Prime Healthcare Services.

Our reporting team of Lance Williams, Christina Jewett and contributor Stephen K. Doig uncovered a pattern at Prime of billing Medicare for rare ailments that generate lucrative bonus payments to the chain.

The Polk award, one of the most prestigious in journalism, was named after a CBS newsman murdered while covering the Greek Civil War in 1948. A total of 15 winners were announced today by the contest administrators at Long Island University. Other recipients include the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe, and ABC News 20/20. Williams, Jewett and Doig won in the category of medical reporting. In announcing the award, Polk administrators cited our reporters for their "groundbreaking" investigation that "offered a glimpse into the broader problem of waste, fraud and abuse within the nation's $2.5 trillion health-care system."

It is a great honor and deeply gratifying. The work of our reporters was painstaking, thorough and courageous. We have produced our yearlong series amidst a barrage of criticism from Prime, which has waged a PR campaign against our small nonprofit newsroom, as we stood by our reporting.

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Our reporters analyzed data containing more than 51 million patient records from 2005 through 2010 and reviewed thousands of pages of documents to uncover billing patterns at Prime that stand apart from other acute care general hospitals in the state. 

The series “Decoding Prime” also prompted heightened scrutiny of the Southern California hospital chain by state and federal investigators. The FBI began questioning former Prime billing administrators and patients after first seeing these sources quoted in our stories.

Earlier this month, Prime abandoned its efforts to acquire a New Jersey hospital. Health regulators there had begun asking questions about the chain's billing methods raised in our series.The chain also lost its bid last fall to acquire another hospital in California when the state attorney general ruled it wouldn't be in the public's interest. This week, a legislative committee will hear testimony about patient-admission practices that we detailed in our series. 

Our reporters relied heavily on data and documents to tell these stories. But our series came to life because of the courage of several former Prime workers and patients who spoke to us on the record about their experiences. 

Recognition is not what drives journalists. It is passion, creativity, the rush to get your story out. Above all, it’s the chance to make a difference.

In today's world journalists around the country are being buffeted and challenged by upheaval laced with opportunities that not all can see. It is a new moment but the old values of investigative reporting, accountability journalism, whatever one likes to call it, are more needed than ever.

Last Thursday the Center for Investigative Reporting was honored by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation as one 15 organizations in six countries to receive the MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions. 

The MacArthur award recognized the innovation, creativity, and fortitude CIR has shown in growing and evolving in the face of  daunting obstacles. It also cited the role of investigative reporting "in changing the world." It was truly an award for everyone at CIR.

The Polk award recognizes journalistic excellence. Lance, Christina and Steve were named in the award. But their recognition is not only about the work but about a culture and a value we are nurturing and building that we believe is important everywhere. This is the first Polk award for our California Watch operation, which we launched at the Center for Investigative Reporting less than three years ago. Some of you may recall that CIR won its first Polk award in 1992 for "The Great American Bailout," co-produced with Frontline.

We hope our recent success can inspire and lead others to emulate what we are doing. And we are here to help. 

Onward.

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