California Watch, the Bay Area-based non-profit, only started up in 2009, but it employs the largest investigative team of any journalism operation in the state and keeps spinning out noteworthy investigations. On Monday, it will be awarded a prestigious George Polk Award for last year's stories on Prime Healthcare Services, an Ontario-based hospital chain that California Watch found was billing Medicare for numerous rare medical conditions that pay lucrative bonus payments. California Watch is the lone non-profit startup to win, alongside mainstream media arms such as the New York Times, the New Yorker, AP, the Wall Street Journal and ABC's "20/20." (It also was the only winner in the West.)
Says Mark Katches, the editorial director at California Watch and its parent organization, the Center for Investigative Reporting:
It’s a truly remarkable accomplishment to win a Polk award when you consider that California Watch didn’t even exist three years ago. It’s a tribute to the credible brand of reporting we produce here.
California Watch journalists Lance Williams and Christina Jewett took the lead on the stories, which ran in Southern California in the Orange County Register and Riverside Press-Enterprise, and aired on KABC Channel 7. The FBI has recently begun to interview sources from the “Decoding Prime” series.
The Polk Award judges say:
Their groundbreaking, yearlong series of articles demonstrated how a California hospital chain increased its Medicare reimbursements by classifying patients as suffering from rare medical conditions. The stories, which appeared in newspapers across California, offered a glimpse into the broader problem of waste, fraud and abuse within the nation’s $2.5-trillion health care system. The reporters sorted through more than 2,500 pages of legal filings and — using an ambitious computer-assisted data program — examined more than 51 million patient records of hospital and emergency room visits. In the wake of the series, Congress and the California State Assembly called for deeper investigations into fraud and malfeasance.
Other Polk Award winners this year include the public radio program "This American Life," for bringing change to an overly harsh Georgia drug court, and 24-year-old crime reporter Sara Ganim, who helped expose the allegations of child sex abuse against former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky. Al-Jazeera English also won a Polk.
The New York Times winners, for foreign reporting, are Jeffrey Gettleman, the former LA Times reporter, and photographer Tyler Hicks. Hicks is one of the four NYT journalists detained last year in Libya. Last week he carried the body of his colleague Anthony Shadid across the border from Syria into Turkey.
The Polk Awards, which are out of Long Island University, will honor Shadid posthumously "for extraordinary valor for his work in the Middle East."
Photo: Monica Lam/California Watch