News

Inmate Care Critics

Legislator also questions prison contract.

A Santa Fe dentist and his assistant say they quit their jobs at the Penitentiary of New Mexico in 2004 because of concerns that state inmates were not receiving adequate dental care.

Dr. Norton Bicoll and Sharon Daily left their employment at Wexford Health Sources, which handles health care in nine New Mexico correctional facilities, because the company ordered them to cut their hours for inmates in half, they say.

Bicoll and Daily's problems with Wexford follow a number of serious allegations levied by

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six ex-Wexford employees that also question the level of health care inmates are receiving [Cover story, Aug. 9:

].

Last week, SFR also reported that two Albuquerque psychiatrists have sued Lovelace Health Systems for firing them after they refused to participate in a proposed contract with Wexford. The contract would have called for the psychiatrists to provide substandard treatment to state inmates, the lawsuit alleges [Outtakes, Aug. 23:

].

These latest assertions about Wexford appear to be part of a growing chorus of criticism of the company and its treatment of inmates.

Wexford Vice President Elaine Gedman, who has responded previously to questions regarding the company, did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this story.

According to Bicoll and Daily, shortly after Wexford took over operations in New Mexico in 2004, the company ordered dental hours at the Penitentiary slashed from four days a week to two.

In response, Bicoll and Daily began to book patients roughly four or five months in advance to deal with the large number of inmates who require serious dental work due to rotting teeth and gum disease. Both say that Wexford administrators told them to stop making the advance appointments.

Bicoll and Daily, both of whom served under Wexford's predecessor Addus Healthcare, quit their jobs six months after the changes in policy.

"I had concerns about the timeliness of the care," Bicoll, who has been practicing dentistry for 43 years and now works at the Santa Fe County Detention Center, says. "That's why I left."

Daily is more pointed about her frustration with Wexford.

"It was shocking to me. Inmates had to wait longer and they were in pain. All we could do was tell them to file a grievance," Daily says. "It seemed like Wexford was doing all of this to save money."

Daily says she complained to Wexford administrators and medical officials from the New Mexico Corrections Department (NMCD) but to no avail. Finally, she and Bicoll left.

"I didn't want to compromise the care anymore," Daily says. "I didn't want to lose my own [dental] certificate, or my

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radiology license."

NMCD spokeswoman Tia Bland says she would not speak to "general

complaints" from former Wexford employees.

But Bicoll and Daily's issues with Wexford relate to the company's staffing shortages in New Mexico, one of the company's most pervasive problems, according to ex-employees.

While both NMCD and Wexford have consistently played down such shortages, according to Wexford's own Web site, there are currently 47 vacancies for medical personnel in New Mexico. That number comprises close to half of the 117 total positions Wexford, the nation's third largest private correctional health care company, is currently advertising for.

Such vacancies not only include a range of nursing positions but also critical, high ranking administrative posts. According to the Web site, Wexford is looking to hire a director of nursing and medical director at the New Mexico Women's Correctional Facility in Grants. The medical director position is also open at Southern New Mexico Correctional Facility in Las Cruces and Lea County Correctional Facility in Hobbs. The Penitentiary of New Mexico needs a director of nursing.

Only Illinois has more Wexford job vacancies than New Mexico-61, according to the Web site. But in that state, Wexford's operation is far larger; the company handles health care in 27 correctional facilities in Illinois, according to the Illinois Department of Corrections.

Despite the appearance of systemic staffing shortfalls, Corrections' Bland maintains that the situation is satisfactory.

"As far as vacancies go, the Corrections Department does not oversee Wexford employee recruitment strategy," Bland says. "Today the staffing numbers are OK."

But State Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Bernalillo, co-chairman of the State Legislature's Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee, says his committee has been concerned with Wexford's performance for "quite a while."

McSorley says the contract with Wexford is not satisfactory and that NMCD is not doing enough to ensure that the company does its job. He says it's up to the governor to scale back privatization in the prison system, before things get worse.

"As long as Wexford is assured that NMCD is going to keep signing its contract, then there is no pressure on Wexford to deliver what it promises," McSorley says. "It's a convenient excuse to say they can't find staff. But it's interesting that when the health care in the prisons wasn't privatized, we could always staff positions even in the remotest parts of New Mexico."

Ken Kopczynski, executive director of the Private Corrections Institute watchdog group in Florida, says charges of compromised prison health care in New Mexico warrant federal involvement.

“It would be good to get the Department of Justice involved if there are allegations of lack of care on behalf of the inmates,” he says. “The New Mexico Corrections Department and the Legislature can’t hide their heads in the sand and say they didn’t know about these problems if there’s ever a lawsuit. The inmates are ultimately the responsibility of the state, and you can’t contract that away.”

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