City, contractor questioned at NYC jail health care hearing

AP News
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Posted: Mar 03, 2015 6:08 PM

NEW YORK (AP) — A New York City lawmaker said at a hearing Tuesday that he didn't have confidence in the leadership of the private health provider awarded a $126 million contract to administer health care at the Rikers Island jail complex.

Health Committee Chairman Corey Johnson, at times incensed, repeatedly cited a report by The Associated Press last year that raised serious questions about the medical care inmates received in at least 15 deaths since 2009. Those cases included inmates who were denied medication, improperly assessed or not treated in a timely manner.

"We can go through, case-by-case, but what are you doing to stop this?" Johnson asked executives of Brentwood, Tennessee-based Corizon Health Inc. after listing some of the deaths reported by the AP. "Because I don't want to come back, three years from now, after a contract's renewed and we have more of these awful cases that we're hearing about because people are being denied the treatment that they deserve."

Other lawmakers at the oversight hearing on inmate care questioned whether Corizon has performed well enough to have its three-year contract renewed when it expires Dec. 31. City Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley suggested the city's public hospital system take over care; another lawmaker recommended the city partner with teaching hospitals to recruit a steady stream of young, enthusiastic doctors.

A deputy health commissioner, Dr. Sonia Angell, testified that city officials are examining new strategies to deliver medical and mental health care at Rikers and would present the results of that review this summer.

Correctional health care is notoriously hard to deliver because jails are chaotic and inmates come into custody suffering from health problems, such as substance abuse addictions, hepatitis C and diabetes, at rates far higher than what's seen in the outside world, according to experts.

The task is further complicated in New York, where by city charter the Department of Correction has custody of the inmates and the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene is responsible for patient care, using Corizon workers to staff clinics across the island.

A Corizon official testified that other "obstacles" exist to the timely delivery of care but didn't specify what those are. Advocates and former health officials say that tension between the two agencies, described by Johnson on Tuesday as "sensitive and tricky," can be traced to the root of many jail problems including deaths because correction officials, focused on security, don't always take seriously health complaints or quickly transport sick inmates to a clinic.

Dr. Calvin Johnson, Corizon's chief medical officer, told lawmakers he understood their frustration.

"We certainly understand and respect your indignation," he told Councilman Johnson in response to a question. "Yes, absolutely, the leadership at Corizon is very committed to providing very high quality health care to identifying the causes of the problems when horrible events like the ones you describe happen to people, people who have families who came with an expectation of getting good care and getting better."

Much of the hearing focused on mentally ill inmates, who now account for about 40 percent of the roughly 11,000 inmates on any given day. Their treatment has come under increased scrutiny in the past year after the AP first reported the death last February of a mentally ill inmate who died after he was locked alone and unchecked for hours in a jail cell that sweltered to more than 100 degrees.

A contract evaluation obtained by the AP last year found that officials downgraded Corizon's performance evaluation from "good" in 2012 to "fair" in 2013, citing leadership in mental observation units. That downgrade followed the death of a seriously mentally ill and diabetic inmate named Bradley Ballard, who was found dead after being locked alone for six days in a cell without medication and received care a state oversight panel deemed so bad "as to shock the conscience."

Dr. Homer Venters, the city health official who oversees the jails, testified that the recent allotment of funds to create small therapeutic housing units for the seriously mentally ill has proven successful. But he said there are only beds in such units for about a third of the inmates who qualify to be housed there.