April 2012 | Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

April 2012

#Sidney's Picks: Special Health Care Edition

  • Why would a woman let her breast cancer grow for years without seeing a doctor, until her breast literally fell off? Dr. Otis Brawley, a distinguished oncologist and public policymaker, describes the constellation of racial, historical, cultural, and economic factors that sent a 53-year-old woman to Brawley’s Atlanta ER carrying her breast in a plastic bag. The answers say a lot about what’s wrong with our health care system and our society at large. [Atlanta Magazine]
  • Maia Szalavitz builds on the New York Times’ scoop about debt collectors stalking the halls of hospitals shaking down patients with the hospital’s blessing. [TIME]
  • Sara Kliff interviews the woman who runs the Massachusetts health insurance assistance line. Kate Bicego may not have a fancy title or a prestigious academic appointment, but she may know more than anyone else about how to implement Obamacare. [WaPo]

[Photo credit: Wander Mule, Creative Commons.]

Yoav Potash, Hillman Winner, Pens WSJ Op/Ed

Yoav Potash, the winner of a 2012 Hillman Award for his documentary, Crime After Crime, writes in the Wall Street Journal about the making of the film and its impact.

At first, Potash wasn’t sure if Debbie Peagler’s story would make a good movie. She Peagler wasn’t most people’s idea of an sympathetic victim railroaded by the system. In 1982, she lured the father of one of her daughters into an alley where gang members murdered him. She was sentenced to life in prison for helping to kill a man who had savagely abused her and forced her into prostitution. In 2002, two lawyers began a campaign to get Peagler released from prison under a novel California law that allows women convicted of murdering their abusers to present evidence of the abuse they suffered as a mitigating factor.

A face-to-face meeting with Peagler convinced Potash he had a compelling documentary subject after all:

By the time I wheeled my camera gear out of the prison gates, I knew I would indeed make a film about Debbie Peagler. She, her lawyers, and I had no idea that her saga would soon take an unpredictable course, eventually making it the most contentious test of California’s unique law and the reasoning behind it.

As news of her legal battle and my film about it spread, Peagler came to represent many victims of domestic violence who have suffered in silence for years, if not decades. Now, as funding for domestic violence shelters is being slashed and legislation like the Violence Against Women Act comes under attack, her story has more resonance than ever. [WSJ]

Potash is proud Debbie’s story has fuelled efforts to enact similar laws in other states.

"Embedded" Debt Collectors Besiege Bedridden Patients


“Embedded” debt collectors prowl the corridors of hospitals, shaking down patients, and even discouraging perceived deadbeats from seeking emergency care, Jessica Silver-Greenberg reports for the New York Times:

Hospital patients waiting in an emergency room or convalescing after surgery are being confronted by an unexpected visitor: a debt collector at bedside.

This and other aggressive tactics by one of the nation’s largest collectors of medical debts, Accretive Health, were revealed on Tuesday by the Minnesota attorney general, raising concerns that such practices have become common at hospitals across the country.

The tactics, like embedding debt collectors as employees in emergency rooms and demanding that patients pay before receiving treatment, were outlined in hundreds of company documents released by the attorney general. And they cast a spotlight on the increasingly desperate strategies among hospitals to recoup payments as their unpaid debts mount.

To patients, the debt collectors may look indistinguishable from hospital employees, may demand they pay outstanding bills and may discourage them from seeking emergency care at all, even using scripts like those in collection boiler rooms, according to the documents and employees interviewed by The New York Times.

By law, hospitals must provide emergency care, even to the destitute. If a hospital “embeds” a debt collector to deter a patient from seeking care and that patient dies because she went untreated, are the hospital and the debt collector liable? 

Silver-Greenberg notes that the Accretive Health’s aggressive tactics are part of a larger trend of hospitals signing over core functions to debt collection agencies in an attempt to recoup more money. Critics worry that giving debt collectors this kind of access could compromise patient safety and privacy. Hospitals claim they have no choice because they are hemorrhaging billions of dollars a year in uncompensated care.

If you need an argument for universal health insurance, Silver-Greenberg has supplied one. 

[Photo credit: Which one is the debt collector? For illustration only. By Agência de Notícias do Acre, Creative Commons.]

Pulitzer Winners Donate Prize to Train Their Colleagues

Your feelgood story of the day: Michael Berens and Ken Armstrong shared a 2012 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting. The two journos have donated their $10,000 prize to Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) to train their colleagues in investigative reporting.

Berens and Armstrong are longtime members of IRE, the leading professional association for investigative journalists in North America. They are both scheduled to speak at IRE’s annual convention in Boston in June. 

Stone Cold: The Mobbed Up World of Snow Removal

Selena Ross digs deep to expose the sordid subculture of Montreal snow removal for Maisonneuve magazine. A handful of established snow removal companies divide the borough contracts between them. Bid-rigging is the norm and upstart competitors are kept in check by sabotage and even violence:

Over the course of a year-long investigation, Maisonneuve analyzed about 250 snow-removal contracts and interviewed more than a dozen private contractors, their employees and the municipal bureaucrats who administer their work. (All sources requested anonymity for their own safety; identifying details have also been omitted.) These sources described bid-rigging as a fact of life in the industry. More crucially, they said, Montrealers don’t understand how fiercely the system is maintained through violence and coercion. Those who obey are rewarded with extra, ill-gotten profits. Those who don’t play along are punished. A former employee of one of Montreal’s snowplow giants put it succinctly. “Snow removal,” he said, “is one of the biggest rackets there is.”

[Photo credit: Robbie1, Creative Commons.]

#Sidney's Picks: Video Shows Fatal Tasing by Border Patrol

  • Need to Know and the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute have obtained explosive video that casts doubt on the U.S. Border Patrol’s claims about the death of a 42-year-old migrant at the hands of Border Patrol agents. According to the official story, the father of five was Tased while he combative and out of control, but the video shows that he was tased after he was already handcuffed and immobilized on the ground. The preview segment, above, has already racked up nearly 80,000 hits on YouTube. The full program will air on PBS tonight. [HT: Talking Points Memo]
  • Be sure to check out USA Today’s sweeping investigation of lead poisoning in children whose homes were built near long-shuttered lead smelters, which contaminate the soil to this day. The EPA knew the risks, but largely failed to act, or even to warn the residents. 
  • The Pineapple and The Hare: Bizarre questions from the New York State English exam.

The 2012 Elections: Is a Multi-Racial Working-Class Coalition Still Possible?

Friday’s labor breakfast panel asked: Is a multi-racial working class coalition still possible? Moderator Dorian Warren, a professor of political science at Columbia, framed the discussion in terms of America’s enduring racial divide; the Baby Boomers vs. the Milennials; the role of money in politics; and the electoral wildcard of the Occupy Movement.

Political scientist Ruy Teixeira explained that Obama won 80% of the non-white vote in 2008, but lost the white working class by 21 points. Journalist Thomas Edsall argued that the current Democratic coalition is strong enough to put the Democrats back into office, but that the Dems need to win more white working class votes in order to credibly claim to represent the average working person.

AFL-CIO official Julie Greene described the AFL-CIO’s strategy going into 2012: Building infrastructure to mobilize voters and protect the electorate from voter disenfranchisement. Minority voters are most likely to be disenfranchised by voter ID laws and other Republican-backed initiatives to make voting more difficult. Massive minority turnout helped put Obama over the top in 2008 and that surge did not go unnoticed by the other side, Greene said. Voter ID laws were introduced in all but three states. She estimated that 5 million people were disenfranchised across the 6 states that enacted voter ID laws.

The panel was sponsored by the Murphy Institute, CUNY, and the Sidney Hillman Foundation.

[Photo credit: Lindsay Beyerstein, all rights reserved.]

Ghost Factories: Lead's Toxic Legacy

A 14-month USA Today investigation has found dozens of long-shuttered lead smelters that continue to contaminate the surrounding soil and endanger public health:

Ken Shefton is furious about what the government knew eight years ago and never told him — that the neighborhood where his five sons have been playing is contaminated with lead.

Their Cleveland home is a few blocks from a long-forgotten factory that spewed toxic lead dust for about 30 years.

The Environmental Protection Agency and state regulators clearly knew of the danger. They tested soil throughout the neighborhood and documented hazardous levels of contamination. They never did a cleanup. They didn’t warn people living nearby that the tainted soil endangers their children. [USA Today]

An environmental researcher compiled a list of over 400 suspected lead-contaminated sites and turned it over to the Environmental Protection Agency, but the agency largely failed to act on the information.

Most residents in lead-contaminated areas were shocked to learn that they were living near, or in some cases on top of, an old smelter site. Medical records supplied to USA Today show that some of their children had dangerously high lead levels. Lead is a potent neurotoxin, especially in young children.

This is a deeply researched, hard-hitting piece of old school investigative journalism. Read the whole thing.

Reminder: Breakfast Forum on Class, Race, and the Election, Friday

Join us Friday April 20th for a breakfast forum titled: The 2012 Elections: Is a multi-racial working-class coalition still possible?  With Tom Edsall, Ruy Teixeira and Ana Avendano, 8:30 to 10:30 a.m. at the Murphy Institute, CUNY, 25 W. 43 rd St. 18th Floor, New York 10036.

View full-sized flyer.

Tonight on FRONTLINE: Does CSI Lie?

Tonight on FRONTLINE, correspondent Lowell Bergman casts a critical eye on crime scene investigation techniques. Is bad science sending innocent people to jail and keeping murderers on the street? Watch the preview.

Here’s another recent FRONTLINE clip about the threat of cognitive bias in fingerprint analysis. A neuroscientist describes how he was able to make half of the fingerprint examiners he studied change their verdict on whether two prints matched by changing his description of the case. Examiners who declared two prints to be a match under one case description sometimes deemed the same two prints a non-match when they were presented with a different description.

(Aside: I’m amused by the ad for Goldman Sachs that runs before the fingerprint segment. Goldman is now calling itself “The Game-Changing Yes Network.”)

[Photo credit: Flick, Creative Commons.]