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New Mexico Prisoners Suffer and Die Under Privatized Health Care

by Ed Lyon

Since it first contracted out prisoner medical care to a private company in 2004, the New Mexico Corrections Department (DOC) has been named along with its contractors in over 220 lawsuits filed by prisoners or their estates.

In 2007, the DOC switched from Wexford Health Sources, based in a suburb of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to Corizon Health, located in Brentwood, Tennessee. Corizon is the nation’s largest private prison and jail health care provider.

By 2016, New Mexico prisoners had filed 150 lawsuits over inadequate care by Corizon and the DOC’s failure to audit the company, which had been awarded another four-year, $151 million contract in 2012. [See: PLN, Sept. 2017, p.32].

The DOC was able to produce records for just 20 of nearly 160 audits it should have completed between 2012 and 2015.

Dr. Bianca McDermott, Corizon’s chief of behavioral health in New Mexico, filed a Fraud-Against-the-Taxpayers Act complaint in 2013, citing the company’s low staffing levels and the DOC’s failure to do anything about them. Her complaint was investigated by then-Attorney General Gary King, but no charges were filed. Instead, McDermott claims she was “retaliated against, harassed, and ultimately terminated.” She filed a whistle-blower suit against the DOC in March 2017.

In two other lawsuits, seven prisoners claimed they were sexually assaulted by a Corizon doctor, Mark E. Walden, who subjected them to “digital rectal exams” – sometimes without gloves – for completely unrelated medical complaints. Prisoners in DOC facilities where Walden worked referred to him as “Dr. Fingers,” the suits alleged. [See: PLN, Feb. 2017, p.56; Sept. 2013, p.47].

In May 2016, the DOC rejected bids from both Corizon and Wexford, and instead awarded its prison health care contract to Centurion Correctional Healthcare of New Mexico, LLC. The $41 million contract had a one-year term with three annual renewal options.

Since Centurion took over medical care for the state’s 7,000 prisoners, at least 24 lawsuits have been filed against the company in federal court. While that is fewer than the 150 suits brought against Corizon over nine years, and the 53 against Wexford during its three-year contract, Centurion has faced serious allegations of medical neglect and deliberate indifference to prisoners’ medical needs, including:

• The wrongful death of a prisoner at the Central New Mexico Correctional Facility (CNMCF) in Los Lunas. David Vigil, who was prescribed the opioid overdose drug Narcan, suffered cardiac arrest and was taken to a hospital, where he was found to have pneumonia, several infections and a spinal abscess.

• The prescription of incorrect seizure medication to another CNMCF prisoner, who then fell and fractured his hand during a blackout.

• The failure to treat a prisoner at the Northwest New Mexico Correctional Facility in Grants, who complained of being diabetic, asthmatic and arthritic.

• The failure to treat a prisoner at the Southern New Mexico Correctional Facility (SNMCF) in Doña Ana County who suffered from stomach bleeding, rectal bleeding and other ailments, and the failure to treat another SNMCF prisoner with multiple medical problems, some potentially fatal.

• The failure to treat an Otero County Prison Facility prisoner’s rectal bleeding, anal fistula and fissure, even after a specialist recommended surgery.

• The failure to treat a Northeast New Mexico Detention Facility prisoner’s stroke for two-and-a-half weeks.

Carry-over lawsuits naming both Corizon and Centurion include a prisoner who sued over a wrist injury that went untreated for more than a year. When he at last received corrective surgery, he was not given physical therapy afterward; his wrist is now permanently disabled and constantly in pain. Also, a deceased female prisoner’s family is pursuing a wrongful death suit that also names the State of New Mexico as a defendant, over the 42-year-old’s death from blood poisoning in 2016.

Centurion is a joint venture between Centene Corp., a St. Louis-based health care behemoth with annual revenue of nearly $50 billion, and MHM Services, Inc., based in northern Virginia near Washington, D.C.

DOC spokesman S.U. Mahesh said the agency does not track lawsuits filed against its health care provider, since the DOC’s contract indemnifies it against legal costs. But between 2016 and September 2018, New Mexico prison officials fined Centurion $2.1 million for failing to maintain contracted staffing levels. MHM, which is contracted to provide behavioral health care for the DOC, was fined almost $500,000 for staffing violations.

Matthew Coyte, a civil rights attorney, noted that prisoners are completely dependent on medical care provided by the DOC and its contractors.

“They are in prison. They have no control over if they can go to an emergency room, for example,” he stated. “And if the system is understaffed or underfunded – or dysfunctional in some way, then the inmates suffer.”

In April 2018, former CNMCF prisoner George Parra filed suit in state court against the DOC and Centurion, claiming that his muscular dystrophy was never treated. The 27-year-old, who is wheelchair-bound, also claims that Centurion employees were “very hateful,” retaliating against him for complaining, refusing to help him with personal hygiene and, finally, releasing him with untreated infections.

“They would ridicule you, call you a cripple, do anything they could to get a rise out of you,” he said. “Paying our debt to society doesn’t mean we deserve to be treated like animals.”

Centurion did not comment on his lawsuit.

PLN has previously reported on private prison medical contractors such as Centurion, Corizon, Wexford, Armor Correctional Health Services, Correct Care Solutions and NaphCare, and their focus on generating profit rather than providing adequate health care for prisoners. 


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