ProPublica's stated mission is to investigate "abuses of power," which might make its deep dive into St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital seem confusing at first. Why would it be digging into what it describes as the "most highly regarded health care charity in the country"? In a word, money. The Memphis hospital has lots of it, thanks to the ubiquitous mailers featuring smiling, bald patients it sends out and big-name celebrity ambassadors. Last year it brought in a record $2 billion, bringing its reserves to $5.2 billion—enough to keep things running for 4.5 years without another penny coming in and a reserve it says it needs due to the "economic driven vagaries of charitable giving." The issue, in ProPublica's view, is in its promise to not bill families. That's true, but there are real limits to the financial help it offers, and that can leave families who must take leave from work in dire straits as they struggle to pay their bills.
Lawyers for the hospital chided ProPublica for not focusing on the generosity and aid the hospital provides. So is it an unfair target? The head of the Andrew McDonough B+ Foundation, which doles out $2.5 million in grants to families of pediatric cancer patients, sums it up well, explaining the hospital's marketing makes it seem like families walk away financially untouched. "People say to me, 'Why are you helping St. Jude families?' Well, what happens when a family lives in Augusta, Georgia, and they’re being treated at St. Jude? They still have to pay the rent on their apartment back in Augusta, Georgia. They still have to make their car payment. And it’s not my position to say whether St. Jude should be paying for all those expenses or not. I’m just explaining that it’s not a totally free ride." ProPublica talks to families of patients who are in financial distress and had no idea St. Jude had billions in the bank. "That’s just insane," says one. "That just blows my mind." (Read the full story.)