Sometimes, we in the news business get a chance to make a significant difference. I saw it happen at The Bee during the past year. Readers of these pages know the story. But it’s worth retelling.
Last February, a psychiatrist at Rawson-Neal Psychiatric Hospital, a Nevada state hospital in Las Vegas, authorized spending $98.50 on a Greyhound bus ticket to send a patient, James Flavy Coy Brown, to Sacramento.
They gave him a three-day supply of anti-psychotic meds, and a few bottles of Ensure and some crackers to tide him over. He had never been here before. He found his way to Loaves & Fishes where a young staffer, Molly Simones, listened to him, became outraged and called Cynthia Hubert, who has spent the better part of the past 20 years at The Bee writing about people without power.
Hubert, joined by Phillip Reese, did what good reporters do: They asked one question, then another. Encouraged by their editor, Debbie Anderluh, they requested public records, analyzed them and wrote what they found: 1,500 people bused to all corners of the continental United States during a five-year period.
Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval denied culpability. His top health advisers insisted they were being humane by busing mentally ill people to their hometowns. They were making it up. They were dumping patients.
In time, the governor ended the untenable policy. Rawson-Neal lost its accreditation. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services chastised the state, but failed to take the extra step of cutting off federal funds for the hospital.
After years of budget cuts, Sandoval and the Legislature agreed to spend more money on mental health care. The state is remodeling a shuttered state psych hospital, and Sandoval established a commission to look at more changes, though the commission includes the same health care advisers who defended the busing policy.
“On balance, (The Bee’s reporting) helped a lot,” said Stuart Ghertner, a former director of Southern Nevada Adult Mental Health Services, which oversees Rawson-Neal and who quit in 2012 in part of because of the cuts.
“It brought mental health and the state of mental health care to attention of the community, the media and the governor. That is a good thing,” Ghertner told me. “In my opinion, reform is moving very slowly in comparison to the immediacy of the problem.”
Last week, Hubert and Reese collected some fancy journalism prizes, the George Polk Award and Worth Bingham Prize for Investigative Journalism. The Pulitzer committee named them finalists for its investigative reporting prize on Monday.
Today, Reese will be crunching numbers for an article about travel spending by government officials, and Hubert will be focusing on Parminder Singh Shergill, the Gulf War veteran who was shot by Lodi police.
The awards are high honors. The accolades are well deserved. More importantly, their reporting forced a state to treat mentally ill people a little bit better. For that, they and the rest of us at The Bee are most proud.