Statesman reporter Audrey Dutton won a regional newspaper award this week for her coverage of the antitrust trial involving Boise’s St. Luke’s Health System and its aftermath, including the successful fight to have trial records released.
Dutton received the first-place prize for enterprise reporting in the prestigious C.B. Blethen Memorial Awards among newspapers with circulations of 50,000 or more in Idaho, Washington, Oregon, Utah, Montana, Alaska, Alberta and British Columbia. The award is given yearly by the Pacific Northwest Newspaper Association.
Dutton covered the antitrust trial when it began in late 2013 in federal court in Boise. The Federal Trade Commission, the Idaho attorney general, Saint Alphonsus Health System and Treasure Valley Hospital accused St. Luke’s of unlawful overreach when it bought Nampa’s Saltzer Medical Group. The takeover gave St. Luke’s control of an estimated 80 percent of the primary care market in Nampa.
Lawyers for both sides asked to shield hundreds of records and testimony of numerous witnesses from public view to protect what they said were trade secrets. U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill agreed. But In the trial’s first days, it became clear to Dutton that the judge was giving lawyers permission to hide more than just trade secrets.
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So the Statesman sued for access for everything, and several other Idaho news organizations joined the lawsuit. A federal appeals court was asked to intervene. The parties in the trial resisted, but in mid-2014 Winmill ordered the release of more than 500 documents used in the trial. The actual release, however, took several months of additional prodding from Dutton and the Statesman’s lawyer, Charles Brown, of Lewiston.
The result was a series of occasional stories that is still continuing. The first was a story last November that revealed what the documents said, such as discussion between health executives of a “monopoly model.” Dutton posted many of the documents in full online, in searchable format, with notations. Since then, she has explored the documents for additional insight into the business practices of Treasure Valley hospital systems and insurers, writing stories about negotiation tactics, strategies to outdo competitors and the push to keep patient referrals within their own systems.
“From the time the trial started and Audrey realized how the hospitals and attorneys were shielding evidence in a public trial, she worked tirelessly on behalf of our readers to get the information released,” Statesman Editor Vicki Gowler said. “The documents revealed business practices that benefited the hospitals, not their patients.”
Dutton, 34, joined the Statesman in 2011. She covers business with an emphasis on the health care industry and trains fellow reporters on investigative and computer-assisted reporting techniques.