The Roanoke Times newsroom captured one of the top awards at the Virginia Press Association’s annual meeting Saturday night in Richmond.

The newspaper received the VPA’s Award for Journalistic Integrity and Community Service for metro columnist Dan Casey’s coverage of expensive charges billed to helicopter ambulance patients in the region. The award — the highest given by the association — was judged by Anders Gyllenhaal, vice president of news for McClatchy, and Julie Moos, senior digital editor in McClatchy’s Washington bureau.

“Starting with a single column about one reader’s whopping medical bill, columnist Dan Casey used the unique combination of reporting and commentary to pursue an injustice that mushroomed into a sprawling controversy,” the judges wrote.

“In the end, Casey’s work led to the reversal of the policies, forced bills to be rescinded and placed a spotlight on an unconscionable practice. One story prompted another and one discovery led to the next, until the whole cynical policy spilled out in public.”

Casey’s first column on the topic detailed the experience of Radford University professor Paul Witkowsky who faced an unexpected $18,590 bill. Witkowsky had been taken by medical helicopter to Carilion Clinic’s Roanoke Memorial Hospital after suffering a stroke in February 2013.

He later learned that Anthem, the dominant health insurance company in Western Virginia, had no provider agreement with Med-Trans, the contractor that provides medevac services for Carilion, the dominant health care provider in the region.

Witkowsky’s initial bill from Med-Trans for the airlift was nearly $24,000. Without a provider agreement, Anthem paid only $5,304.01 of Witkowsky’s bill.

Casey detailed the professor’s plight in a July 30 column noting that, without an Anthem contract, Med-Trans had been flying patients the previous 17 months. The reaction from readers was immediate and nearly overwhelming. Casey’s phone wouldn’t stop ringing, dozens of readers emailed with their own air ambulance billing nightmares, and his blog was flooded with comments.

He asked questions that resulted in several follow-up columns. Less than two months later, Med-Trans announced it had reached an agreement with Anthem. The new agreement not only benefited future air transport patients, but it also applied retroactively for 17 months. Some patients got refunds. Others had enormous debts written off.

Witkowsky, the Radford professor, ended up paying $648.

“Casey’s reporting and style were a perfect fit for this topic; he kept his own reactions in check and let the facts provide the outrage. His work also put the billing practices in context, showing how other states and municipalities handled these costs in an appropriate way,” the judges wrote. “The series of columns had true impact, forcing a change of policy that likely would not have occurred without the paper’s coverage.”

The public service award was created in 1947 to recognize editorial leadership as well as community service above and beyond a publication’s circulation area.

The Times won the award for the 10th time overall and for the third time in the past seven years. The newsroom most recently won for its 2008 coverage of the region’s aging population and for its 2007 reporting on the Virginia Tech shootings.

The judges selected two other public service entries for honorable mention, including The Roanoke Times’ series on the high rate of deaths caused by drivers not wearing seatbelts.

“The Roanoke Times’ series, ‘Making it Click,’ dissected a life-and-death topic with a precision built on extensive data and presented dynamically to lay out a serious problem peculiar to this region,” the judges wrote. “There can be little doubt this series ended up saving lives in Virginia.”

The other honorable mention award was presented to The Richmond Times-Dispatch.

The Roanoke Times captured 15 other writing, design and photography awards, competing against the biggest newsrooms in the state, including the Richmond Times-Dispatch, The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot and The Washington Post.

The five first-place awards went to Rebecca Barnett, picture story or essay on race car driver Bobby Thomason; Andy Bitter, sports writing portfolio for his coverage of Virginia Tech football; Dan Casey, column writing; Diane Deffenbaugh and Andrew Svec, front page design; and Terri Macklin and Gretchen Tipps, specialty pages design for the Inside Out section.

The three second-place awards went to Luanne Rife, health, science and environmental writing; Joel Hawksley, picture story or essay on Roanoke’s City Swim Barracudas team; and Kyle Green, breaking news photo.

The seven third-place award winners were Ralph Berrier Jr., feature writing portfolio; Lindsey Nair, column writing; Rebecca Barnett, sports feature photo of a color run in Roanoke; Natalee Waters, feature photo from a turkey harvest in Floyd County; Joel Hawksley, sports news photo from Mountains of Misery bike ride; Joel Hawksley, breaking news photo; and The Roanoke Times staff, special sections.

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