The Washington, D.C. based advocacy group “Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights” named Alabama Public Radio the winner of the national Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award for radio. This honor is for APR’s yearlong investigation and documentary “Help Wanted: Alabama’s Rural Health Care Crisis.” Previous media laureates of this award have included NPR, CBS-TV’s “60 Minutes,” ABC-TV’s “20-20,” The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times. APR’s news team includes News Director Pat Duggins, Assistant News Director Stan Ingold, and Senior Producer and Morning Edition Host Alex AuBuchon.
“I am so proud of the APR news team and delighted that their work has been recognized by the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award for radio,” says Elizabeth Brock, Director of the Center for Public Television and Radio. “Pat, Stan and Alex are dedicated to reporting stories of importance to Alabama’s diverse citizenry—and taking on the state of health care was an important and ambitious endeavor. The support of the University of Alabama and our colleagues at the College of Communication and Information Sciences and the generosity of our listeners and community leaders make it all possible.”
Founded by the reporters who covered Robert F. Kennedy's historic 1968 presidential campaign, the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Awards honor outstanding reporting on issues that reflect Robert Kennedy's concerns, including human rights, social justice, and the power of individual action in the United States and around the world. Winning entries in 13 categories provide insights into the causes, conditions, and remedies of human rights violations and injustice, and critical analyses of relevant policies, programs, individual actions, and private endeavors that foster positive change.
National rural health care advocates consider Alabama to be “ground zero” for everything that’s wrong with rural health care in the U.S. Studies often rank Alabama as having the highest infant mortality rate in the nation, and the greatest number of diabetics. In 2016, the U.S. Census bureau ranked Gadsden, just east of Birmingham, as having the lowest life expectancy in the country. Despite this, Alabama hospitals complain they receive among the lowest Medicare reimbursement rates in the U.S.
“The deeper we dug into the rural health issue in Alabama, the worse it got,” says APR News Director Pat Duggins. “The news team and I can’t describe how flattered we are with this generous award. Hopefully, it will help shine an even brighter light on the challenges rural Alabamians face in obtaining the medical care they need.”
Duggins, Ingold, and Aubuchon investigated issues including the lack of hospitals in rural Alabama. Seven rural counties don’t have one. Only sixteen of the remaining counties have a hospital that can deliver a baby. “Help Wanted” featured Kendal Gilchrest of Marion, who spoke of the three hour long round trips she faced during her pregnancy.
“Early on, I got sick. And, I thought it was just a stomach bug,” Gilchrest recalled. “I’m playing phone tag with this practice that I barely know ninety miles away, talking to on-call physicians, trying to weigh is it worth driving a hundred and eighty miles round trip just be told that I have a stomach bug. I end up choosing not to go in because I have two other children at home. Then, about five weeks later when I go to my monthly appointment, I find the baby had died."
2017 also marked the forty fifth anniversary of the Associated Press story that exposed the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, where the disease was allowed to progress untreated in African American men in Macon County, Alabama while medical officials took notes. Stan Ingold took APR listeners to Tuskegee for the ceremony marking twenty years since President Bill Clinton’s official apology for the scandal. Ingold interviewed whistleblower Peter Buxton who recalled when he found out what was going on.
“There is the study being run down in this place called Tuskegee and everyone in the study is black," said Buxton. "What’s going to happen with the civil rights movement when they find out about it, so eventually the civil rights movement found out and people were very unhappy about it.”
Alex AuBuchon focused on telemedicine as one possible way to bring doctors and patients together using internet based technology for routine treatment, even if they live in different parts of the state. He spoke with rural health and telehealth advocate Ron Sparks about the challenge in getting enough doctors to serve Alabama, and how remote sensing technology could help.
“If we had 500 doctors to land in Alabama today, we still wouldn't have enough,” says Sparks. “If we had 250 dentists land in Alabama today, we wouldn't have enough. So access to health care is definitely a problem in the state of Alabama. Using technology and using telemedicine is a way to reach folks who don't have access to health care.”
The issue, as AuBuchon explains, is the lack of internet bandwidth in Alabama. A state mandate allows health department extra internet capacity in most, but not all counties. A plan in Georgia, to use bandwidth in public schools to provide telehealth coverage, is being opposed in Alabama.
Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights will present its national Journalism Award to the APR news team at a ceremony at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. in May. Other 2018 media laureates include The New York Times, The Associated Press, "Frontline" on PBS, and New York Magazine.