Following months of reports that state inmates are suffering behind bars due to deficient medical services, a state legislative committee has requested a special audit of health care in New Mexico’s state prisons.
During an Oct. 20 hearing at New Mexico Junior College in Hobbs, members of the Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee voted unanimously to ask for the audit, which will focus on Wexford Health Sources, the private company that contracts with the New Mexico Corrections Department (NMCD).
The company’s operation in New Mexico has been the subject of a three-month investigative series by SFR, during which former and current Wexford employees have come forward with allegations of problematic health services for inmates [Cover Story, Aug. 9: Hard Cell?]. As a result of the series, the Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee decided to address the issue during a regularly scheduled hearing in Hobbs [Outtakes, Sept. 13: Checkup].
Norbert Sanchez, a nurse suspended by Wexford in September after an alleged dispute with health administrators, spoke at the hearing about problems he witnessed at Central New Mexico Correctional Facility in Los Lunas. Sanchez recalled witnessing a wheelchair-bound inmate who sat in his own feces for hours and a sick inmate who missed critical doses of medicine for congestive heart failure.
Sanchez also expressed concerns that echo those raised previously to SFR by other former and current Wexford staff: a systemic lack of medical supplies, failure to properly dole out prescription drugs and reluctance to send sick inmates off-site for specialized treatment.
Though he was the only former Wexford employee in attendance, Sanchez referred legislators to a packet he'd disseminated with testimony from current Wexford employees. Those employees feared retaliation if they came forward, Sanchez said.
ACLU New Mexico staff attorney George Bach testified that his organization has been hearing similar concerns from Wexford employees and that many are, indeed, afraid to go public.
"These employees are so passionate about this issue that if you called them to testify, I'm certain they would do it," Bach said.
Both NMCD and Wexford refuted Sanchez' and Bach's allegations.
Devendra Singh, NMCD's quality assurance manager for health services, hashed through the nationally approved correctional health care standards to which he said the Corrections Department adheres. He also pointed to the strict auditing process he said NMCD uses to monitor Wexford.
"We go for auditing for every inch of every aspect of care," Singh said.
Wexford President and CEO Mark Hale said his Pennsylvania-based company is subject to more stringent oversight in New Mexico than in any other state where it operates.
"If inmates need health care, they get it," Hale, who categorized the attacks on Wexford as deriving from disgruntled ex-employees, said.
But Singh's and Hale's assurances were not enough for the legislators on hand, who peppered the two with questions.
At one point, State Rep. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, referred to a recent SFR story in which a current Wexford employee at Central decried treatment of inmates as inhumane and noted that never before had the employee seen such deficiencies in health care [Outtakes, Oct. 18: Corrections Concerns].
"That's pretty darn scary to me," Wirth said of the allegation.
Committee co-chairman and State Rep. Joseph Cervantes, D-Doña Ana, questioned Singh's assertion that medical complaints from inmates are rare and noted that on a tour of Lea County Correctional Facility the previous night, legislators had heard numerous inmate concerns about medical problems. Co-chairman Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Bernalillo, said on the same tour he'd seen an inmate suffering from a visible cystic infection. The cyst should have easily been identified through only a "cursory" medical evaluation, McSorley said.
Corrections Secretary Joe Williams said his agency welcomes a special audit of health care in the prisons. Legislators agreed that such an audit, under the aegis of the Legislative Finance Committee (LFC), should be conducted by an independent third party and include accounts from current Wexford employees who could remain anonymous.
LFC Chairman Lucky Varela, D-Santa Fe, says he has not yet received an official request from the Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee, but will be keeping an eye out.
"We will seriously consider looking at the Corrections component to see what type of health care and what type of contracts are being approved by the Corrections Department," Varela says.
Indeed, for Peter Wirth, the logical next step is an audit that examines Wexford's services and NMCD's oversight and that allows current employees to speak freely.
Says Wirth: “We really need to hear more from these folks. Obviously, we’ve begun a dialogue here, and we don’t want to short-change it.”
Santa Fe Reporter