Top 10 Stories of 2006: Prison Break

Behind-the-bars health care gets a shakedown.

It’s been a long, turbulent year for Wexford Health Sources, the private prison company that administers health care in New Mexico’s state prisons.

It’s been even harder for the 6,000-plus inmates that the Pittsburgh-based company treats or, as a growing number of critics would argue, doesn’t treat.

Over the last five months, SFR has written 11 stories on Wexford and the litany of serious problems the company has experienced in New Mexico [Cover story, Aug. 9: " Hard Cell?”].

Those who have raised concerns about Wexford include the company's former regional medical director, the former medical director of Lea County Correctional Facility (LCCF) in Hobbs and numerous former and current Wexford medical employees. Their allegations are all hauntingly similar:

Wexford refuses to fill critical medical positions. Wexford refuses to grant off-site visits for seriously ill inmates. Wexford refuses to renew critical prescription medicine for inmates.

And, according to those who worked for the company, and some who still do, the company's insistence on the bottom line over the care of its charges causes inmates to suffer, sometimes with lasting, even fatal, results.

Amid a growing chorus of critics, Gov. Bill Richardson decided Wexford needed an overhaul. On Dec. 8, prompted by SFR’s reporting, Richardson ordered the New Mexico Corrections Department (NMCD) and the state’s Children, Youth and Families Department (with whom Wexford also holds a contract) to find a new medical provider [Outtakes, Dec. 13: “Wexford Under Fire”].

According to Richardson spokesman Gilbert Gallegos, details regarding Wexford's departure are still being worked out, but both agencies will be using a different company to provide health care very soon.

"First we had Addus. Now we have Wexford. It seems like every time the state brings in another private health care company, things just get worse," Dr. Gayla Herbel, former regional medical director for Wexford in New Mexico and a chief critic of the company, says.

Even before Richardson took action, SFR's series, which also has documented Wexford's past problems in other states, lawsuits in this one and a state nursing board investigation into alleged record falsifying, spilled over into the state Legislature.

On Oct. 20, the Legislature’s Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee held a hearing on Wexford in Hobbs. In addition to listening to testimony, legislators toured LCCF and heard firsthand from inmates about Wexford’s failures at the facility. As a result, committee members unanimously voted to recommend that the Legislative Finance Committee (LFC) conduct an independent audit of Wexford [Outtakes, Oct. 25: “Medical Test”].

"We heard a great deal from the inmates about the problems with medical care," State Rep. Joseph Cervantes, D-Doña Ana, says. "The result was the request for the LFC audit. I'm pleased that NMCD is now placing the scrutiny on Wexford that is deserved."

The LFC has since moved fast; the audit is already in the works and will continue even though Wexford is on its way out.

"We want to establish good quality controls with any future company we contract with," LFC's Deputy Director of Audits Manu Patel says.

Ken Kopczynski, director of the Private Corrections Institute, a Florida-based watchdog group, has kept an eye on Wexford's New Mexico operations. He's called publicly for the US Justice Department to intervene and says the state shouldn't be surprised at what has happened.

“It’s great to hear that the governor is moving forward on this. But I’m hoping the state doesn’t drop the ball in terms of recouping liquidated damages regarding Wexford not carrying out the contract, if that’s what happened,” he says. “With a for-profit company like Wexford, you get what you pay for. Not only do they have to provide health care to the inmates, but they need to make a profit margin for their shareholders.”

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