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Judge Denies Motion to Nullify Orleans Parish Prison Health Care Contract

The Louisiana federal district court overseeing the consent decree related to conditions at the Orleans Parish Prison (OPP) has denied a motion by the City of New Orleans to nullify a contract to provide prisoner health care at the facility. The motion was the latest skirmish between city officials and Sheriff Marlin Gusman.

As previously reported in PLN, the court approved a consent judgment on October 21, 2013 to address the “stark, sometimes shocking deficiencies in OPP’s medical and mental health care system.” [See: PLN, June 2014, p.44]. To meet his obligations under the consent decree, Gusman entered into a five-year, $83 million contract with Nashville, Tennessee-based Correct Care Solutions (CCS), a for-profit company.

The city argued in its motion that the contract’s “exorbitant price tag” was “financially crippling.” While city officials had expressed significant concerns about the “overall cost, per diem price offering, and annual expenditure inflation rates” during the vetting process, they had never argued prior to the motion to terminate the CCS contract that Gusman lacked the authority to enter into it.

“Moving forward, not backward, is the only acceptable path to the Court,” the district court stated in its May 29, 2015 order denying the city’s motion. “OPP must and will be brought into compliance with the Consent Judgment.” Problems at the jail were so egregious that the U.S. Department of Justice intervened in the case under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA).

Change at OPP has occurred at a “glacial pace.” The court noted that at every turn, the city has “continued to offer inappropriate rhetoric regarding costs of providing constitutional care” without providing a “concrete, viable alternative plan.” That rhetoric, the district court said, was “more befitting a press conference than a judicial proceeding.”

The city’s arguments to nullify OPP’s prisoner health contract with CCS relied upon Louisiana statutes, which provide “The governing authority of each parish shall appoint annually a physician” to care for prisoners, or may enter into a contract with a health care provider.

Gusman argued the city should be barred from invoking the law due to its “long term failure to comply with its own duties pursuant to that statute.” The court agreed, stating it was “utterly inexplicable” that the city sat by for a year as the sheriff “solicited, negotiated, executed, and implemented the contract with CCS.”

Once again, city officials failed to pre­sent an alternative, viable plan to provide medical care to prisoners in lieu of the CCS contract. “Voiding the contract now, not having anything to take its place would jeopardize all the efforts that have been expended to date to meet constitutional standards with respect to inmate medical and mental health issues,” the district court wrote.

While the CCS contract was predicated on the city providing funding, declining to provide funds for prisoner health care was a path the court advised should not be pursued. “The City is forewarned; the Court will not permit the Orleans Parish Prison to fall short of constitutional standards because of inadequate funding by the City.”

The CCS contract was the only viable option to provide prisoners at OPP with adequate health care, thus the city was required to pay for it under its state law obligations. The court urged the sheriff, city officials and other stakeholders to work together, and those efforts could include negotiating a new contract to replace the current one with CCS. The district court also encouraged Sheriff Gusman to “improve what has at times been an insufficient effort to facilitate this process.”

The case remains pending. See: Jones v. Gusman, U.S.D.C. (E.D. La.), Case No. 2:12-cv-00859-LMA-SS.

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Related legal case

Jones v. Gusman