Legislators, ACLU look at prison care.

Concerns about prison health care reported exclusively by the Santa Fe Reporter will be discussed by a legislative committee next month.

The Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee will gather in Hobbs on Oct. 19 and 20 for a regularly scheduled hearing and discuss, among other items, the health care provided to state inmates by Wexford Health Sources.

Wexford, a private, Pennsylvania-based company, has come under fire from ex-employees who allege that inmates receive dangerously substandard health care [Cover story, Aug. 9: Hard Cell? ].

State Rep. Joseph Cervantes, D-Doña Ana, co-chairman of the committee, says those concerns prompted the Legislature to take action.

"The issues [SFR] has raised have not come before our committee recently. Inevitably, you get a perception that the management wants you to see, but we want to go beyond that," Cervantes says.

Cervantes expects representatives from Wexford and the New Mexico Corrections Department (NMCD) to answer questions at the meetings. He also encouraged all those who have concerns about Wexford's health care in the prisons to come forward.

"We need these individuals to not only participate in the public portion of the meetings but consider presenting evidence and testimony to the committee," Cervantes says.

State Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Bernalillo, co-chairman of the committee, echoes his counterpart's sentiment.

"With the increasing outcry of health care in the prisons, Joe and I decided this was an issue that needs to be discussed," McSorley says.

In a Sept. 11 e-mail to SFR, Corrections spokeswoman Tia Bland says NMCD has not yet received an agenda from the Legislature regarding the hearings:

"As always, we will be prepared to answer any question legislators may have concerning operations at the Correction Department," Bland writes.

Wexford Vice President Elaine Gedman, also in a Sept. 11 e-mail, says Wexford is unaware of the forthcoming hearings, but, "If we are invited, we will be happy to participate."

Meanwhile, SFR recently obtained an Aug. 29 memo from Wexford that directs staff not to speak with this paper. The memo is from J Chavez, identified as director of nursing at Central New Mexico Correctional Facility in Los Lunas.

"It is important that you either contact the Pittsburgh office or myself if this reporter contacts you," the memo states. "Please keep in mind that all of you have read and signed the business code of conduct…"

The memo also cites the company's media relations policy, which prohibits employees from speaking with the news media on matters relating to Wexford.

In her e-mail to SFR, Gedman writes that Chavez sent out the memo to address numerous concerns, including a feeling among employees that this reporter was "harassing" them.

"We were concerned that your numerous calls into the facilities trying to talk to our employees created a disruption and could cause unnecessary distractions when providing patient care," Gedman writes.

In reporting for this and three previous stories on Wexford, SFR called state correctional facilities, for the most part only to seek comment from Wexford or NMCD officials.

ACLU-New Mexico Executive Director Peter Simonson says Wexford's tactics, while probably legal because the company is private, are cause for concern.

"Wexford is fulfilling a public function, so I don't understand why they are afraid to answer the public's concerns, especially if people are registering complaints about the failures of their services," Simonson, who examined the memo, says. "It seems like this is just a shallow attempt to do damage control. They are trying to control leaks of information that appear to be quite credible and quite significant."

Simonson also says that ACLU lawyers are reviewing SFR's recent stories on Wexford to determine if civil rights violations have occurred in the prisons.

Says Simonson: “We’ve been aware of Wexford’s poor services, and we’re examining the issue to see if we should consider litigation.”

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