The Center for Investigative Reporting and CNN today received a national award from Investigative Reporters and Editors for a series of stories exposing rampant fraud in California taxpayer-funded drug and alcohol rehabilitation clinics amid broken government oversight.
The Rehab Racket investigation has garnered far-reaching results, sparking a state crackdown that cut off funding to 223 rehab clinic sites accused of practices including fabricating records and billing for patients who didn’t have drug problems. Dozens of state Department of Justice probes have been launched. The head of the state’s Medicaid agency – called Medi-Cal in California – issued a public apology at a legislative hearing and announced a slate of reforms. Lawmakers, meanwhile, have introduced legislation to require criminal background checks for clinic operators.
CIR and CNN won the IRE award in the large broadcast video category, reserved for investigations by the country’s top TV networks. The project is also an IRE finalist for large multiplatform investigations. CIR reporters Christina Jewett and Will Evans teamed up with CNN senior investigative producer Scott Zamost and investigative correspondent Drew Griffin to produce the series. Jewett and Evans wrote the stories for CIR and CNN. The cable network produced video that aired on “Anderson Cooper 360.”
Earlier this year, the collaboration also was named a finalist for local accountability reporting by the American Society of News Editors and for in-depth national TV coverage by the Scripps Howard Foundation. Overseeing the project at CIR were Senior Editor Amy Pyle, Editorial Director Mark Katches and Director of Digital Media Susanne Reber and, at CNN, Vice President and Senior Editorial Director Richard T. Griffiths and Investigations Director Patricia DiCarlo.
In coverage rolled out over several months, the team showed that taxpayers had spent at least $94 million over two years on Los Angeles-area clinics with clear signs of fraud or questionable billing. Clinic directors pressured counselors to pad bills with “ghost clients” they never saw. Clinic staff bribed some of the region’s poorest residents to show up for counseling they didn’t need. Regulators who could have stopped the abuses instead let misdeeds multiply.
On a stakeout of one San Fernando Valley clinic, reporters counted no more than 30 people entering the center during business hours. The same clinic later billed for counseling 179 clients that day. A follow-up story by CIR and CNN highlighted holes in medical oversight, allowing clinic doctors to sign off on treatment plans without seeing patients.
In addition to the award for Rehab Racket, CIR was named a finalist in the radio category for its investigation into the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ pain pill habit. The story premiered on “Reveal,” a new hourlong public radio program produced by CIR and PRX that showcases investigative reporting. It detailed how the VA became the drug dealer of choice for many veterans addicted to prescription painkillers. The story also won a George Foster Peabody Award.
Jennifer LaFleur, CIR’s senior editor for data, also was honored with an IRE award as part of a ProPublica team that won for a series about the prescription drug practices of physicians under Medicare. LaFleur joined CIR in October.