Florida prison officials didn’t ask, companies didn’t tell about hundreds of malpractice cases

By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org prison

The Florida Department of Corrections awarded a five-year, $1.2 billion contract to provide medical care for thousands of state prisoners in north and central Florida to Corizon, a Tennessee company that was sued 660 times for malpractice in the last five years.

Nearly half of those cases remain open. Of those that are closed, 91 – one in four – ended with confidential settlements that Corizon declined to discuss. Corizon began work in August providing care at 41 correctional facilities.

A second contractor, Pittsburgh-based Wexford Health Sources, signed a five-year, $240 million contract in December to provide medical services to state inmates in nine institutions in South Florida.

Wexford, however, was hit with 1,092 malpractice claims – suits, notices of intent to sue and letters from aggrieved inmates from January 1, 2008 through 2012. Records say Wexford settled 34 of 610 closed matters for a total of $5.4 million, as well as another case that ended in a $270,000 jury verdict against the company.

The Department of Corrections, headed by Secretary Michael D. Crews, hired Corizon and Wexford to lead Florida toward millions of dollars in savings promised by the massive privatization of inmate healthcare enacted by Gov. Rick Scott and the Republican-controlled Legislature.

Along the way, however, the corrections department never asked the corporations bidding for those lucrative jobs to disclose their litigation histories — how often they’d been accused of malpractice, where those cases were filed and the outcomes.

Neither Crews nor Dr. Olugbenga Ogunsanwo, the assistant secretary for medical and health services, agreed to be interviewed for this story. Corrections spokeswoman Misty Cash, however, called the state’s contracting process “comprehensive.”

Florida Corrections Secretary Michael D. Crews

Florida Corrections Secretary Michael D. Crews

“The selection of Wexford and Corizon was transparent,” she said. “Both companies provided the required and requested documentation as outlined in the procurement and bidding process.”

Government agencies elsewhere in Florida typically require corporate bidders to provide litigation histories in order to assess the quality and reliability of their services, as well as their ability to limit potential liability.

Prisons are obligated under the Eighth Amendment to provide prisoners with adequate medical care.

The problematic litigation histories of Corizon and Wexford raise questions about the quality of inmate care promised by those companies and paid for by Florida’s taxpayers.

“What really troubles me about this is the fact that the department didn’t ask these very basic, elemental questions any system would ask,” said Eric Balaban, a staff attorney for the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union. “These two vendors were taking over Florida’s massive health care system and you’d think they would have asked hard questions to determine if these companies can provide these services within constitutional requirements.”

BrowardBulldog.org obtained the litigation records from the Broward Sheriff’s Office using Florida’s public records laws.

BSO obtained them from Corizon and Wexford during their unsuccessful bids this summer to provide healthcare services for inmates at the Broward County Jail. Each company complied, to varying degrees.

Prison companies don’t like to discuss lawsuits filed against them, and neither Corizon, created by the 2011 merger of competitors Prison Health Services and Correctional Medical Services, nor Wexford would comment for this article.

LITIGATION AS ‘TRADE SECRET’

Corizon, in fact, initially tried to block the release of its litigation history by claiming it was exempt from disclosure as a “trade secret.” The company rescinded that claim in late August, after its work for the state had begun and after being told litigation was being contemplated by this news organization to force disclosure.

While Corizon told BSO it had been sued 660 times, it did not provide the requested list of cases.

One example, however, can be found in the court file of 24-year-old Brett Fields.

Fields was sent to the Lee County Jail on July 6, 2007 after being convicted of two misdemeanors. He was healthy, except for a bump “about half the size of a tennis ball” on his left arm – the result of a spider bite, the court records say.

On Aug. 6, after a month of sporadic, ineffective and “lax” treatment by Corizon staff, Fields “felt his back go sore and numb.” The next day, his legs began to twitch uncontrollably, with the pain becoming unbearable after midnight on Aug. 8, records say.

Fields could no longer walk by the time he saw a physician’s assistant about 9 a.m. who checked Fields’ his leg and foot reflexes and found none. Fields was given Tylenol and returned to his cell.

Early on Aug. 9, Fields “felt his intestines escaping from his rectum.” Fellow inmates begged Corizon’s staff to take him to the hospital. Instead, nurse Bettie Joyce Allen “obtained some K-Y Jelly, and pushed the intestines back in,” the records say. Hours later, at a local hospital, doctors found an abscess compressing his spine.

A jury awarded Fields $1.2 million in 2011 after finding Corizon solely responsible for what happened. The award included $500,000 in punitive damages. Fort Lauderdale attorneys Gregg Lauer and Dion Cassata represented Fields.

The verdict was  upheld last year by an appeals court that observed prompt treatment “could have averted permanent damage to his legs, but he did not receive that treatment because Prison Health (Corizon) delayed his treatment.”

PROBLEMS ACROSS THE U.S.

In addition to the lawsuits and claims filed against them, Corizon and Wexford both have faced withering official criticism about the delivery of care to inmates.

  • Idaho – In 2011, the Associated Press reported that Corizon was fined $382,000 by the state “for failing to meet some of the most basic health care requirements outlined by the state.” Last year, an expert appointed by a federal judge to review Corizon’s medical care at one prison near Boise found “inhumane” conditions.
  • Pennsylvania – Corizon paid a $1.85 million fine to Philadelphia after investigators determined the company had used a front company as a subcontractor to meet city requirements for minority-owned vendors.
  • Maine – In 2011, a state agency review of Corizon’s operations there found that the company maintained medical records poorly and had failed to fulfill contract obligations. The head of Maine’s American Civil Liberties Union later told the state’s Public Broadcasting Network that those problems rose to “a systemic constitutional dimension.”
  • Mississippi – In December 2007, the joint legislative committee criticized Wexford and the state’s Department of Corrections for failing to ensure that all inmates received timely access to quality medical care. Wexford was also assessed more than $930,000 in fines for maintaining staffing levels that were not in compliance with contract minimum – fines the committee said had not been collected.
  • Arizona – Wexford and the state’s corrections department agreed in January to terminate Wexford’s medical services contract in the wake of accusations the company improperly dispensed medicine to inmates and wasted state resources, according to the Arizona Republic. Wexford was awarded a three-year contract seven months earlier. Arizona hired Corizon to replace Wexford.

Florida has had its own problems with the two companies.

In 2006, Corizon, then known as Prison Health Services, backed out of a 10-year state prison healthcare contract saying it wasn’t making enough money. The company had won the contract only months before with a bid that was millions lower than its competitors.

In 2004, Florida legislative auditors called Wexford’s medical care “problematic,” according to the Miami Herald. In 2002, the newspaper reported that the Florida Correctional Medical Authority had reprimanded Wexford the year before for poor medical care following the deaths of two inmates.

Florida let bygones be bygones when it hired Corizon and Wexford to help achieve the 7 percent in cost savings mandated for privatization by the legislature. Corrections spokeswoman Misty Cash said taxpayers would save $3 million a month because of those contracts.

Some contend Florida’s emphasis on savings has eclipsed questions about the quality of the medical care for inmates that taxpayers are purchasing.

Michael Hallett is a professor of criminology at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville who has written about prison privatization. He said quality of care simply isn’t much of a concern when it comes to prisoners.

“Most people feel, as long as they achieve their 7 percent savings who cares how they treat inmates?” he said.

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4 Comments Post a Comment
  1. David Sam says:

    The malpractice industry has long known that the incidence of claims is excessively high in prison. This is not unique to Florida.

    When we look at it we found:

    1. The better doctors would prefer a cushy private practice to working in prisons.

    2. A prisoner has nothing better to do than file a lawsuit. Even if he loses he gets to go outside the prison walls. Go to the court room. And perhaps have a nice lunch.

    David Sam
    http://www.malpracitcetimes.com

  2. Independent Thinker says:

    Actually, very few prisoners actually have enough free time to file lawsuits. Most have job assignments that keep them busy most or all of the day. Of the rest, most do not have the ability to know how to file a suit. So point 2 is something of an overstatement. Perhaps a quarter of one percent of inmates can file because they lack anything better to do.

    There have certainly been many frivolous lawsuits, but let’s not try to minimize the problem as a reaction to a maximizing exposure. It also doesn’t change the fact that both Wexford and Corizon have extensive and dismal records of care, as verified by non-inmate observers.

  3. Charlotte Greenbarg says:

    Ask questions? Please. This is the good ol’ boy system at work. And save money at any cost mindset.

    I believe it is possible to provide acceptable care without such horror stories and still save some money, but the state evidently isn’t interested in finding companies that could do it.

  4. Independent Thinker says:

    @Charlotte: You raise an excellent point. Why can’t the state just adopt some or all of the same cost-saving measures (and, as you say, without the horror stories) and dispense with a private company altogether?

    There is no reason, other than to line the pockets of corporate leaders.

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