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A Center for Public Integrity investigation detailing questionable spending by private Medicare plans has been awarded the prestigious Philip Meyer Journalism Award for social science reporting.

The series, Medicare Advantage Money Grab, documented how Medicare Advantage plans, created more than a decade ago to control health care spending on the elderly, have instead wasted $70 billion dollars through manipulation of a tool called “risk scores” from 2008 through 2013. The formula is supposed to pay health plans more for sicker patients and less for healthy people — but it often pays too much. Medicare Advantage plans now cover nearly 16 million seniors at an estimated cost to taxpayers of more than $150 billion last year.

The series also explained how the federal government has for years missed opportunities to corral overcharges and other billing errors tied to the abuse of risk scores. It painted a picture of the growing power of the Medicare Advantage industry and its sway over members of Congress. The series also foreshadows possible problems with the Affordable Care Act as it uses the risk score system.

The project was built from the reporting efforts of senior health care reporter Fred Schulte, an analysis of Medicare Advantage risk score data by former Center data editor David Donald and intern Erin Durkin, and interactives and visualizations by news developer Chris Zubak-Skees, who were individually cited as part of the award. The series was edited by executive editor Gordon Witkin.

The Center team spent months searching public records, including federal and state court records, and interviewing experts, health lawyers and data companies.

Judges called the series “superb” and noted that despite numerous obstacles, the Center’s journalists “aptly dissected the shocking shortcomings” of the Medicare Advantage program. They noted that the explanation of the risk score system and the analysis of how it is manipulated was “particularly lucid.”

The Meyer Award honors recognizes the best uses of social science methods in journalism.

The prize is administered by the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting (a joint program of Investigative Reporters and Editors and the Missouri School of Journalism) and the Knight Chair in Journalism at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications at Arizona State University. The prize honors Philip Meyer, professor and former Knight Chair of journalism at the University of North Carolina, who pioneered the use of survey research in journalism as a reporter for Knight-Ridder newspapers.

The Center edged out ProPublica who were awarded second place for their reporting series about temporary workers, and third place-winner Reuters for their work on the effects of rising sea levels.

The new Meyer award is the second for the Center’s Medicare reporting efforts. The 2012 Meyer award was given to the Center’s Cracking the Codes series, which documented how medical professionals had billed Medicare for more complex health care over a decade’s time-adding $11 billion or more to their fees despite little evidence elderly patients received more treatment.

“The Center for Public Integrity is extremely pleased to win the Philip Meyer Award for the second time in three years,” said Center executive director Bill Buzenberg. “This award once again demonstrates the excellent computer-assisted reporting skills of our former managing editor and CAR guru David Donald. David was part of a strong team made up of Medicare reporter Fred Schulte, digital graphic genius Chris Zubak-Skees, former CAR intern Erin Durkin, and the overall project supervisor for this series, executive editor Gordon Witkin,” added Buzenberg. “I am personally delighted by this latest IRE and NICAR recognition.”

The award will be presented at the 2015 CAR Conference in Atlanta in early March.

Congratulations to all of the winners; see the full announcement and the other place-getters here.

Follow @FredSchulte and @zubakskees on Twitter.

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