Wendi Thomas awarded 2020 Selden Ring Award for investigation of Memphis hospital

The hospital canceled $11.9 million of debt owed by more than 5,300 patients following her investigation.

Wendi Thomas, a Memphis journalist who was instrumental in uncovering wrongful practices in local hospitals, received the 2020 Selden Ring Award for Investigative Reporting on Monday at Wallis Annenberg Hall for uncovering a massive scheme by Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare of overcharging patients.

Thomas’ stories exposed Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare for suing low-income patients for their medical bills, leading their charges to inflate due to interest and attorney fees. In all, 8,300 lawsuits were filed between 2014 and 2018, crippling those with low socioeconomic backgrounds.

“There has never been a time when we needed hard-hitting investigative reporting to effect positive change more than in today’s complex and turbulent world,” USC Annenberg Dean Willow Bay said when announcing the award on March 3. “USC Annenberg is proud to have partnered with the Ring Foundation to once again present this prestigious award celebrating the very best in investigative journalism.” The USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism has presented the Selden Ring Award for the past 31 years, awarding a $50,000 prize for reporting that brings about imminent change.

After Thomas’ investigation, Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare eliminated at least $11.9 million in debt owed by more than 5,300 patients. The hospital also suspended lawsuits, started a review of its collection practices and made more people eligible for free or discounted care. It also announced it would not file collection suits against any patients whose income is less than 250% of the federal poverty line, and promised to boost the wages of its lowest-paid workers to at least $15 an hour by 2021.

She also was the victim of racist and misogynistic comments during her time as a columnist with The Commercial Appeal. Early in her career at the Commercial Appeal, she received multiple death threats as well as a rape threat. After the paper did not outwardly support Thomas, she decided to leave. Thomas also founded MLK50, a nonprofit newsroom in 2017. Shortly after MLK50 launched, Thomas devoted her time to investigating the systemic poverty issue in Memphis.

At the end of the event, Thomas opened the floor to let students ask her questions. Annenberg student Bintou Agne asked Thomas if there were any moments during her investigation of Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare where she was scared to be taking on such a big organization.

Thomas could not think of a time where she was scared but recalled an awkward moment she had during that time.

“My daddy had a heart attack and he was taken to Methodist Hospital,” Thomas said, “and we had to sign our names in, and I said, ‘you know, I’m just going to sign my sister’s name.’”

The crowd of engaged students and professors erupted in laughter, giving a lighter moment in an otherwise informative event.

“She’s definitely a role model to women and minorities, me included,” Agne said. “I think she would be a great resource for students as a professor. I would definitely take her class.”