Dave Jamieson has won the November Sidney Award for his Washington Post Magazine article “The Treatment of Kenny Farnsworth,” | Hillman Foundation

Dave Jamieson has won the November Sidney Award for his Washington Post Magazine article “The Treatment of Kenny Farnsworth,”

The Hillman Foundation announced today that Dave Jamieson has won the November Sidney Award for his Washington Post Magazine article “The Treatment of Kenny Farnsworth,” a compelling account of a homeless man in Washington, D.C. who, like millions of Americans, depends exclusively on hospital emergency rooms for medical care.

Over the last decade Jamieson’s subject has made hundreds of 911 calls to get treatment for everything from pancreatitis to irritable bowel syndrome. With a typical visit to the emergency room costing upwards of $1,000.00, credit agencies are currently dunning Farnsworth for approximately $500,000.

Sidney Award judge Charles Kaiser said, “Jamieson used the classic journalistic technique of focusing on a single individual to illuminate a vast national problem: a dysfunctional health care system which wastes up to $32 billion a year by treating chronic, non-urgent problems with emergency care rather than primary care. Jamieson’s story proves that providing basic health care in an emergency room makes no economic sense.”

People like Farnsworth are known as “frequent fliers” among emergency responders. Jamieson reports on a program started in the Bay Area in which teams of paramedics, social workers and nurse practitioners seek out these patients so that they can provide them with more effective and long-lasting treatment as opposed to the quick fixes they receive in emergency rooms. The program has since been so effective in reducing emergency room visits by “frequent fliers” that it has now been replicated in Memphis, San Diego and Washington, D.C.

Jamieson is a 31-year-old freelance writer living in Washington. A former staff writer for the Washington City Paper, Jamieson has also written for SlateThe New Republic, and the Huffington Post Investigative Fund. His first book, Mint Condition: How Baseball Cards Became an American Obsession, will be published by Atlantic Monthly Press. Last year he was the winner of a Livingston Award, for “Letters From an Arsonist,” a cover story in the Washington City Paper which profiled an arsonist who had burned Washington buildings down over many years.

Interview with Dave Jamieson

Dave Jamieson, a freelance writer based in Washington D.C. and winner of the November Sidney, talks about what frequent 911 callers taught him about the health care system in “The Treatment of Kenny Farnsworth.

1. When did you first hear about this story and why did you decide to look into it?

As is often the case, I knew the kind of profile I wanted to write long before I knew who exactly my subject would be. When I was a beat reporter in Washington I used to do ride-alongs with firefighters and paramedics. I was surprised to see how many of the same patients these first responders handled day in and day out—the so-called “frequent fliers”—and how the medics developed such emotionally complicated relationships with them. I found it all fascinating. So for years I wanted to write about someone who was essentially a ward of the city’s ambulances and emergency rooms and to look at all the economic questions such a person raises.

I first heard about Kenny Farnsworth in 2007; it seemed whenever I dropped his name to a firefighter or paramedic I got some kind of amusing story in return. Once I got serious about tracking him down I started leaving my card at some of his usual haunts—a firehouse, a tow lot, etc. He gave me a ring one day back in the spring and we started hanging out.

2. What surprised you most as you began following Farnsworth?

What surprised me the most was how the context of the story changed while I was working on it. Initially, we didn’t intend to do a health care story, per se. I was just interested in frequent fliers and how some cities are changing how they handle them, taking more of a social worker’s approach than a paramedic’s. But then this whole health care debate started raging. My wise editor at the Post, David Rowell, said we should take a closer look at where frequent fliers fit into the health care crisis. As it turns out, we do waste a lot of money handling problems in the emergency room when we could be treating them much more cheaply through primary care. And I felt like Kenny’s own story did a nice job of illustrating those larger problems and inefficiencies.

3. What has the response been since you published it?

Kenny tends to provoke a lot of passion in people. Paramedics and nurses have devoted so much time to him over the years that many of them see him as a scourge. And yet he’s nice enough and colorful enough to stir a lot of sympathy in others. It’s been more or less the same with those who’ve read his story—a frothy brew of compassion and outrage. As one woman wrote me, “I was torn between feeling sympathy for Mr. Farnsworth and latent anger at how his actions will indirectly affect my health care bills.”

4. Is there something you wish you had room to include in the piece but could not?

Privacy laws can make it very difficult to report stories dealing with health care. It would have been nice to delve more into Kenny’s particular health problems, but some of the physicians I reached out to were understandably cagey about discussing an individual patient in print. Same for paramedics and hospital workers. It also would’ve been nice to spend some time in emergency rooms talking to people, but again you run into privacy laws there. I really came to sympathize with full-time health reporters—there are more legal hurdles in that niche than in most others.

5. If you went back to this story in another year, what would you want to follow-up on?

I’d be curious to see if more cities have started targeting frequent fliers for treatment outside of the ambulance and the emergency room. There have been some great successes in places like San Francisco and Washington in that regard, and though it’s hard to calculate it looks like those programs are saving cities and hospitals real money, as well as changing quite a few lives for the better.

And of course, I’d like to see how Kenny is doing in another year. Whether he’s still visiting the hospital routinely, whether he’s got a fresh stack of medical bills, and whether he finds himself in a stable living arrangement or out on the street. It certainly would be nice to see him in a better place.

The Washington Post

Dave Jamieson