The winner of a $4 billion Illinois contract has a history of preventable deaths in state prisons
Illinois prison officials are standing by their recent decision to award a new $4 billion contract to the state’s troubled prison health care provider, despite a new report filed in federal court that describes preventable deaths, poor care and neglect inside state prisons.
The report found that half the medical positions the company is responsible for providing in the prisons are unfilled. A review of 107 inmate deaths found nearly 900 issues with how patients and cases were handled, including a fall risk who was not monitored and died after hitting his head and multiple patients found to be malnourished after their deaths.
In one disturbing example of the provider’s neglect, the report describes the death of an obese patient who was found with cockroaches crawling out of abdominal folds.
The report by a court-appointed expert was filed in federal court last week and sent to the state late last year. It outlines repeated failures by the vendor, Wexford Health Sources, to provide adequate health care to people in Illinois prisons and, in some cases, the poor care resulted in inmate deaths.
WBEZ has been reporting on the failures of prison health care for more than a decade. State officials were well aware of Wexford’s repeated failings when, in late December, they awarded Wexford a 10-year, $4 billion contract to continue providing medical service in Illinois prisons.
In his report, Dr. John Raba describes Wexford Health Sources as an obstinate health care provider not moved by federal court orders or the pleadings of the people it is paid millions in taxpayer dollars to care for. Raba describes Wexford managers as “generally passive and indifferent” to documented problems and with a record of failing to supervise staff or provide medical direction based on reviews of patient deaths.
The report was filed in federal court as part of a long-running lawsuit over poor medical care in Illinois prisons. It mirrors many others filed in the past outlining medical care so bad it violates the U.S. Constitution and contributes to early deaths.
“Oh, my God, how many years have we been at this and we’re not making any progress?” said Harold Hirshman, an attorney for people in Illinois prisons. “People are still dying unnecessarily. Medications aren’t being delivered in a useful way. There aren’t enough doctors. It’s like the Keystone Cops are running the health system.”
The “Keystone Cops,” Hirshman said, are “Wexford and the [Illinois Department of Corrections].”
Hirshman said in light of this most recent report, Illinois taxpayers “should think, ‘Oh, my God, where are my legislators? Where is the governor? Who is paying attention?’ ”
“I know, we don’t care about prisoners, we’re just happy they’re locked up behind bars. But I think there’s enough compassion left in the society as a whole to want to know who’s minding the store,” Hirshman said.
Alan Mills, another attorney who is part of the ongoing prison health care lawsuit, said he was in the state prison in Centralia visiting with inmates the day the expert report was filed.
“[The inmates] all reported that Centralia had not had a full-time doctor or nurse practitioner for many months, and as a result medications were not being renewed … and appointments were virtually non-existent,” Mills said in an email. “All expressed dismay that Wexford’s contract had been renewed since they had such a dismal record of providing care.”
Mills said the decision to renew Wexford’s contract with the state “means that people are going to suffer unnecessarily, it means that people’s minor medical problems are going to continue to grow into major medical problems because it’s not addressed.”
“And frankly, it means some people are going to die that would not have otherwise died … because of poor medical care.”
Illinois Department of Corrections spokesperson Naomi Puzzello did not respond to findings in the expert report, nor did she answer WBEZ’s question asking how Wexford was the best health care provider considering the findings.
Instead Puzzello sent a lengthy statement explaining the state only received two bids to provide health care services and Wexford was scored as the better of the two.
“The Department [of Corrections] has retained outside counsel, McGuireWoods specializing in healthcare, to assist with contract negotiations,” Puzzello said in the statement. “In the interim, the Department is committed to continuing to provide medical services to the individuals in custody through its emergency contract with Wexford, while it also focuses on contract negotiations to ensure the ultimate contract is thorough, fair, and aligns with broader IDOC efforts to continue to improve medical care for individuals in custody.”
Wexford did not respond to a request for comment.
The initial term of Wexford’s contract is five years for $1.96 billion, with a five-year renewal worth $2.2 billion.
The Associated Press reports that the Pittsburgh-based Wexford was not the low bidder. Wexford’s offer came in $673 million higher than one from VitalCore Health Strategies of Topeka, Kan.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
Patrick Smith is an editor on WBEZ’s Urban Affairs Desk. Email him at email@example.com.