The series that won the 2013 Worth Bingham Prize for Investigative Journalism began with a call from a source. A social worker told Sacramento Bee reporter Cynthia Hubert about a man the police had brought in named James Flavy Coy Brown. Brown showed up in Sacramento from Las Vegas after being discharged from Rawson-Neal Psychiatric Hospital with three days’ worth of medication to treat his schizophrenia, anxiety and mood disorders, enough snacks to get him through the 15-hour bus ride, and instructions to call 911 when he arrived. He had no ID, insurance card, or money and did not know anyone in Sacramento. By the time the social worker spoke to Brown, he said he was thinking of jumping off a bridge. She sent him to the emergency room at UC Davis Medical Center where he spent two nights before moving to a private mental hospital.
Brown told Hubert that he wasn’t the only person from Rawson-Neal who had been bused out of state and he wondered what had happened to the other people. “We knew at that point that we had potentially a big story,” said Hubert.
After the first story was published, Mike Willden, director of the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services, told the Nevada legislature that patient busing was not systematic. To check his statement, Hubert and her colleague Phillip Reese obtained five years’ worth of bus receipts from Rawson-Neal. The two lead reporters were assisted by a number of colleagues at the Bee. They found that Rawson-Neal had bused nearly 1,500 patients out of Nevada over a five-year period, sending at least one to every state in the continental U.S., often without treatment plans or accommodations. About a third of the patients were bused to California.
The hospital did a poor job redacting names from the receipts, allowing Hubert and Reese to track down former Rawson-Neal patients. “It was technically a HIPPA violation. We decided that the risk was worth it,” said Hubert. They were honest with the people they located. “Ultimately the people who spoke to us wanted to make a change,” said Hubert. “They didn’t want what happened to them to happen to other people.” After a source gave Hubert and Reese an un-redacted set of receipts, they expanded their search, eventually tracking down about 25 patients.
After the series was published, the state of Nevada increased funding for mental health services by $30 million and convened a council to recommend improvements in the mental health system. The hospital has stopped busing patients and two staff members were fired. Rawson-Neal lost its accreditation and may lose its Medicare funding. “As a journalist I have always wanted to give voice to people who don’t have clout, don’t have any political pull,” said Hubert, “and I think we did that in this case and we shined a light on really awful practices being inflicted on the most vulnerable people in society. So it was very, very gratifying to be able to make a difference in their lives.”
In reporting on Brown’s life, Hubert interviewed his daughter. She had lost touch with her father. They reunited and Brown is now living with his daughter.