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Healthcare Privatization Blamed for AZ Prisoners' Exposure to Hepatitis-C

Less than two months into its $349-million contract with Arizona's Department of Corrections (ADC), Pittsburgh-based Wexford Health Sources, Inc. made a rather dubious, life-threatening first impression with the prison population and prisoner advocates.

On Aug. 27, 2012, a nurse already under investigation for unsafe practices, working at the Fort Lewis prison complex west of Phoenix, might have exposed more than 100 prisoners there to hepatitis-C by contaminating the prison's insulin supply.

Nwadiuto Jane Nwaohia, under investigation by Arizona's Board of Nursing since June 2012 for allegations the board would not elaborate, administered a routine dose of insulin to a diabetic prisoner who also has hepatitis-C, and then inserted the same needle into another vial to draw more insulin for the same prisoner. The vial, according to ADC Director Charles Ryan, was then placed among other vials in a medication refrigerator and got mixed up with other vials of insulin used that day on 103 diabetic prisoners.

Medical staff discovered the contamination the same day and destroyed all the vials of insulin, and Nwaohia, according to a Wexford statement, was suspended after it was learned she "had violated basic infection-control protocols while administering medication that day."

However, Wexford—which began a three-year contract to provide healthcare for nearly 40,000 Arizona prisoners on July 1, 2012—didn't notify the state or Maricopa County officials until eight days later.

"It's extremely disturbing that something like this could happen. It calls for a thorough investigation to determine all of the surrounding causes of the mistake or the negligence," said Don Specter of the Berkeley, Calif.-based Prison Law Office, which—along with the Arizona ACLU—has sued ADC for not providing adequate healthcare to prisoners.

Wexford attempted to deflect some responsibility for the contamination by blaming a local staffing agency for assigning Nwaohia to the prison complex. But Ken Kopczynski, the executive director of the Private Corrections Working Group in Tallahassee, Fla., criticized state officials who contracted prisoner healthcare to a for-profit company, and then failed to maintain proper oversight of Wexford.

"This is a problem with privatization," Kopczynski said. "(ADC is) just accepting who Wexford will hire."

Source: The Arizona Republic

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