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ivoh | January 17, 2018

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Meet Jed Lipinski: ivoh fellow covering the opioid epidemic in Louisiana

Meet Jed Lipinski: ivoh fellow covering the opioid epidemic in Louisiana

Mitch Brandon, a former counterintelligence agent for the U.S. Army, was asked to pay $8,066 for two MRIs he received at Lakeview Regional Medical Center in Covington, La. Had he known what the scans would cost ahead of time, he says, he would have gone elsewhere and saved thousands of dollars. Photo was published in: “Why was Army vet charged $4,033 for $450 MRI? It’s ‘complicated,’ hospital says,” May 3, 2017, and The Times-Picayune. 


By Gloria Muñoz


2016 ivoh fellow Jed Lipinski covers public health and criminal justice for | The Times-Picayune in New Orleans. His reporting has been honored by awards from the Associated Press Media Editors and the New Orleans Press Club. Last year, Lipinski received a National Press Foundation fellowship for his coverage of the opioid epidemic in Louisiana. His work has been featured in publications including The New York Times, BuzzFeed, Politico, Slate, Salon, The Wall Street Journal, and Vice.

As an ivoh fellow, Lipinski is pursuing a project on the evolution of a small Louisiana parish over the past 15 years. His fellowship project focuses on the opioid epidemic in St. Bernard Parish in Louisiana. Read more about Lipinski’s project here.

When describing his first impression of restorative narratives, Lipinski said: ” … When I read ivoh’s description of the genre (Restorative Narrative), I immediately realized that I’ve spent my journalism career admiring and trying to write restorative narratives. In fact, the allure of restorative narratives is what drew me to New Orleans in 2013. In a city that has endured multiple natural and man-made disasters over the last 10 years, I suspected I would find people persevering and even thriving in the worst of circumstances. That has proven true. Telling their stories has strengthened my faith in human beings’ ability to grow stronger through adversity. I think the fellowship’s understanding of what restorative narrative means will improve the way I tell these stories in the future.”

We recently connected with Lipinski about his time as an ivoh fellow.


Gloria Muñoz: What initially drew you to ivoh’s Restorative Narrative fellowship?

Jed Lipinski: I was alerted to the fellowship by a friend at the Times-Picayune who recognized my interest in telling restorative narrative-type stories. But it wasn’t until I read the description of restorative narratives on ivoh’s website that I understood what exactly I’d been aspiring to in my reporting for the Times-Pic. I was particularly drawn to the fellowship by the opportunity to work with Jacqui and other journalists who want to go deeper than conventional newspaper feature stories and explore ways that people overcome extraordinary difficulties in their daily lives. I also trusted that I could find such a story in New Orleans.


Muñoz: In what ways does living in New Orleans inform your perspectives as a journalist? 

Lipinski: New Orleans had completely shifted the way I view my role as a journalist. In New York, where I lived for 10 years before moving here in December 2013, I was not confronted every day with the results of dramatic socioeconomic inequality in the way that I am here. Simply put, living next to poor black communities that have been systematically disenfranchised for decades has opened my eyes to the need for deep and human reporting on social justice issues.


Muñoz: Tell us about your story and where you’re at in your reporting process.

Lipinski: My story centers on a pharmacist from the working-class town of Chalmette, a 15-minute drive from downtown New Orleans, whose son was murdered during a crack deal in the Lower 9th Ward in 1999. The pharmacist spent the next year trying to solve the murder, and finally did so in late 2000. As he brought the case to a close, however, he found himself at the center of a pernicious new threat to his community: the OxyContin boom. He would spend the next two years of his life putting his newfound investigative skills to work shutting down one the biggest “pill mill” doctors in the South.

I began reporting the story in December. It is now May 1 and I’ve interviewed more than 80 people, including DEA and FBI agents, pain management specialists, drug dealers and addicts, local sheriff’s deputies, and people whose families have been destroyed by painkiller addiction and overdose. I’m now working on a first draft that attempts to show how the murder of one man’s son and an outbreak of fatal overdoses in his community changed his perspective on the place he has spent his entire life.


Muñoz: How is the fellowship helping you develop and tell this story?

Lipinski: The fellowship been invaluable in encouraging me to go as deep as possible into the lives of the characters I’m writing about, not to stop because of an arbitrary word count. With Jacqui’s help, it has also helped me structure and organize a truly daunting pile of research.


Dr. Michael Ellis, a professor of otolaryngology in New Orleans and a former president of the Louisiana Medical Society, said insurance companies do a disservice to their members by omitting information in their explanation of benefits statements. “It’s a truly maddening phenomenon,” he said “By not including the name of the procedure or the code, there’s no way to know if you’ve been overcharged or charged for something that never even happened.” Photo was published in: “For some Louisiana health insurers, explanations of benefits are anything but,” May 3, 2017, and The Times-Picayune.


Muñoz: What have you learned so far about Restorative Narrative?

Lipinski: I’ve learned that restorative narratives are there for the telling if you know where to look and what questions to ask. By sticking around and continuing to ask questions, by setting aside time constraints and inquiring more deeply into people’s struggles and motives, incredible stories emerge. For example: A DEA agent I spoke with happens to have been a former elementary school teacher from an impoverished area of New Orleans. Her years as a teacher deeply informed her subsequent role as a diversion investigator. Had I not inquired into her background and asked her to share as many detail as she was willing to, she would not have come alive in the way she now does in my story.


Muñoz: What advice do you have for other media practitioners who want to tell Restorative Narratives?

Lipinski: Expend as much energy as you can finding a character who illuminates or personifies the issue you want to talk about. If you do your best to find the right person, you allow his or her life to tell the story for you. With luck, that person changed as the result of the obstacles they confronted, giving the reader hope that they, too, can overcome similar obstacles in their own lives.


Related: Meet Jaeah Lee: ivoh fellow covering police violence in AmericaMeet Alice Driver: ivoh fellow capturing stories of migration across Mexico | Meet ivoh’s 2017 Restorative Narrative Fellows | ivoh fellow Moses Shumow screens ‘Liberty Square: Power, History, and Race in Miami’ ivoh highlights from 2016 | 11 guiding questions for media practitioners pursuing Restorative Narratives