Prison Audit Ahead

Review of inmate health services could take up to six months.

The New Mexico State Legislature is one step closer to an audit of Wexford Health Sources, the private company that administers health care in New Mexico’s prisons.

On Oct. 24, the Legislative Finance Committee (LFC) tentatively approved the audit, which will evaluate Wexford's contract with the New Mexico Corrections Department (NMCD) and also assess the quality of health care administered to inmates.

The request for a review of Wexford originated with the state Legislature’s Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee, which voted unanimously on Oct. 20 to recommend the audit after a hearing on prison health care in Hobbs [Outtakes, Oct. 25: Medical Test].

A subsequent Oct. 30 letter sent to the LFC by committee co-chairmen Rep. Joseph Cervantes, D-Doña Ana, and Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Bernalillo, refers to “serious complaints raised by present and former employees” of Wexford. The letter cites this newspaper’s reportage of the situation and notes that on a recent tour of Lea County Correctional Facility in Hobbs, “committee members heard numerous concerns from inmates about medical problems not being addressed.” It also refers to confidential statements Wexford employees provided to the committee that were then turned over to the LFC.

The decision to examine Wexford and NMCD comes on the coattails of months of reports that state inmates are suffering behind bars due to inadequate medical services, documented in an ongoing, investigative series by SFR. Over the past three months, former and current employees have alleged staffing shortages as well as problems with the dispensation of prescription drugs and the amount of time sick inmates are forced to wait before receiving urgent care [Cover story, Aug. 9: Hard Cell?].

The timing, Manu Patel, the LFC's deputy director for audits, says, is ideal, because the LFC already planned to initiate a comprehensive audit of NMCD, the first in recent history.

Regarding the medical component of the audit, Patel says: "We will be looking at how cost-effective Wexford has been. Also, we will be looking at the quality of care, how long inmates have to wait to receive care and what [Wexford's] services are like."

Patel says the LFC plans to contract with medical professionals to help evaluate inmates' care. As per a request from the Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee, current Wexford employees will be given a chance to participate in the audit anonymously.

The audit's specifics require final approval from the LFC in December; the committee will likely take up to six months to generate a report, according to Patel.

In a Nov. 6 e-mail to SFR, Wexford Vice President Elaine Gedman cites 14 successful, independent audits performed of Wexford in New Mexico since May 2005.

"Wexford is proud of the service we have provided to the Corrections Department as documented in these independent audits and looks forward to continuing high quality health care services in New Mexico," Gedman writes.

NMCD spokeswoman Tia Bland echoes Gedman: "We welcome the audit and plan on cooperating any way we can," she says.

Meanwhile, former employees continue to come forward.

Kathryn Hamilton, an ex-NMCD mental health counselor, says she worked alongside Wexford staff at the Pen for two months, shortly after the company took the reins in New Mexico in July 2004. Hamilton alleges that mentally ill inmates were cut off psychotropic medicine for cheaper, less effective drugs and that inmates waited too long to have prescriptions renewed and suffered severe behavioral withdrawals as a result.

Hamilton, who had worked at the Pen since April 2002, says she encountered the same sorts of problems under Addus, Wexford's predecessor, but quit shortly after Wexford's takeover because the situation wasn't improving.

"They would stop meds, give inmates the wrong meds or refuse to purchase meds that were not on their formulary, even if they were prescribed by a doctor," Hamilton says. "I felt angry, sometimes helpless, although I always tried to speak with administrators to help the inmates."

Hamilton married a state inmate by proxy last month, after continuing a correspondence with him following her tenure at the Pen. Hamilton says she did not serve as a counselor to the inmate, Anthony Hamilton, but met him after helping conduct a series of mental health evaluations. Hamilton has been a licensed master social worker under her maiden name since 2000 (according to the New Mexico Board of Social Work Examiners). She emphasizes that her relationship with her husband did not begin until after she left the Corrections Department.

According to Hamilton, her husband, still incarcerated at the Pen for aggravated assault, recently contracted methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), a serious staph infection. In a previous story, four current Wexford employees specifically mentioned MRSA as a concern to SFR because they allege Wexford does not supply proper protective equipment for staff treating infectious diseases like MRSA [Outtakes, Oct. 18: Corrections Concerns].

Wexford Vice President Gedman did not address Hamilton's claims when queried by SFR. Corrections spokeswoman Bland also says she can't comment on Hamilton's allegations because she had not spoken with Hamilton's supervisor at the time of her employment.

Says Hamilton: “I initially called the newspaper as the concerned wife of an inmate, not as a former therapist. With all the stories the Reporter has done, I wanted to come forward with what I had seen at the Pen.”

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