SFR EXCLUSIVE: Wexford Under Fire

Governor takes action against prison health care provider.

After two troubled years of administering health care in New Mexico’s prisons, Wexford Health Sources will lose its multimillion-dollar contract with the state.

Wexford has been the subject of a five-month investigative series by this paper.

Now, SFR has learned that on Dec. 8, Gov. Bill Richardson ordered the New Mexico Corrections Department (NMCD) to immediately begin the search for a new health care provider.

"The governor has directed the Corrections Department to develop and implement immediate and long-term options for improving health care quality at the state's correctional facilities," Richardson spokesman Gilbert Gallegos says. "Those options are expected to include sanctions and seeking another provider-which basically means the Corrections Department will be crafting a request for proposal [RFP] to solicit a new vendor. They're working out the terms of the RFP now and will most likely be terminating the contract with Wexford." Wexford's contract expires in June 2007, Gallegos says.

SFR has repeatedly and exclusively published allegations by current and former Wexford employees regarding inmate care [Cover story, Aug. 9: “Hard Cell?”]. Those accounts focused on dangerously low medical staffing levels at the nine correctional facilities where Wexford operates; Wexford’s refusal to grant chronically ill inmates critical, off-site specialty care; and systemic problems in administering prescription medicine to inmates.

Gallegos says the governor learned about the problems with Wexford through SFR's stories.

Our ongoing investigation:

Outtakes, Nov. 29: Backlash

Outtakes, Nov. 22: Unhealthy Diagnosis

Outtakes, Nov. 8: Prison Audit Ahead

Outtakes, Oct. 25: Medical Test

Outtakes, Oct. 18: Corrections Concerns

Outtakes, Oct. 4: Medical Waste

Outtakes, Sept. 13: Checkup

Outtakes, Aug. 30: Inmate Care Critics

Outtakes, Aug. 23: Unhealthy Proposal

Cover story, Aug. 9: Hard Cell?

"The governor had been concerned about the quality of care delivered in the correctional facilities and directed the Corrections Department to increase oversight of Wexford," Gallegos says. "Corrections was doing that, but it appeared that many of those deficiencies were not being corrected."

Wexford, which also administers health care in facilities run by the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department (CYFD), will lose those operations as well, Gallegos says.

Wexford began working in New Mexico in July 2004, after signing a $27 million contract with NMCD. The Pittsburgh-based company has also lost contracts in Wyoming and Florida because of similar concerns over health care.

SFR also learned this week that Dr. Phillip Breen, Wexford's regional medical director in New Mexico, has resigned, effective Dec. 31.

In addition, a dentist at a state prison in Hobbs tells SFR that facility is so understaffed that inmates sometimes wait up to six weeks to receive important dental care.

Dr. Ray Puckett, who has been working as a part-time dentist at Lea County Correctional Facility (LCCF) in Hobbs for approximately one year, alleges that some inmates are suffering because the backlog to receive dental treatment is so massive.

"I've heard about inmates pulling their own teeth after months and months. I've heard about inmates saying, 'I just can't stand it anymore,'" he says.

Puckett says Wexford should have hired a full-time dentist at LCCF because so many inmates require medical attention to take care of abscesses, cavities, tooth extractions and other painful dental problems. Puckett works at the facility only one day a week, during which he typically sees up to 16 patients. He says that Wexford also has another dentist who will occasionally work one day a week at the facility.

"What we have now is a poorly run operation. It's grossly understaffed and disorganized. And it ends up being unfortunate for the inmates," Puckett says.

Wexford Vice President Elaine Gedman did not respond to e-mails and phone calls from SFR.

Corrections spokeswoman Tia Bland says NMCD is not aware of a backlog of dental patients at LCCF, but will look into it. She adds that Wexford is only required to have a dentist at LCCF for two days a week.

With regard to the governor's action against Wexford, Bland says: "It's a fact. Wexford has not met its contractual obligations to the Department, and that's something we can't ignore. We have to do something about it. We will be putting a plan in place."

In the coming year, both Wexford and NMCD are slated for an extensive audit by the Legislative Finance Committee. The audit was the result of a hearing on Wexford by the Legislature’s Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee in October. The hearings also were held in response to reports in this paper [Outtakes, Oct. 25: “Medical Test”]. It’s now unclear whether the audit will still take place.

As for Puckett, he has considered leaving his post because of what's happening at LCCF. A veteran of correctional health care, he also worked for Wexford's predecessors, Addus HealthCare and Correctional Medical Services. In his estimation, both companies, which operate to make a profit like Wexford, cared more about the inmates' physical well-being and were willing to sacrifice dollars to ensure that medical problems were treated expeditiously.

Says Puckett: "It is my sense that Wexford doesn't care what sort of facility they run. Everything is run on a bare-bones budget. They're in it to make money."

Not anymore.

When asked whether there was any chance at all that Wexford could remain in its current capacity at NMCD or CYFD, Richardson spokesman Gallegos responded: “They’re done. The governor’s intention is to replace Wexford with a new company. We expect to have a new provider in a reasonable amount of time.”

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