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Corizon Health Strikes Out in Arizona

by Ed Lyon 

In 2014, a settlement was reached in Parsons v. Ryan, a lawsuit over healthcare in Arizona’s prison system. The state contracted with Corizon Health to provide medical services for the Arizona Department of Corrections (ADC), even though the company had been plagued with problems and lawsuits over its failure to provide adequate medical care to prisoners in other jurisdictions. [See, e.g.: PLN, Nov. 2018, p.60; Sept. 2018, pp. 26-27].

As part of the Parsons settlement, the ADC set up a monitoring board to oversee Corizon’s contractual performance. Time would prove the company was no better at providing medical care to Arizona prisoners than it was anywhere else, and as a result the Parsons case was eventually reopened. 

U.S. District Court Judge Roslyn Silver appointed an expert to review the ADC’s healthcare system operated by Corizon amid allegations by multiple whistleblowers that the for-profit company was skirting state auditors, violating regulations and risking the lives of prisoners who relied on the firm for medical care.

Jose Vallejo, a former police officer and prison guard, was employed as a licensed vocational nurse at ADC’s State Prison Complex-Eyman in Florence for two years, beginning in December 2016. He primarily worked with the most acutely mentally ill prisoners who were housed in the SMU-1 unit. Under its contract, Corizon was to maintain a 90 percent staffing level at all times with properly trained employees. Vallejo was supposed to be trained for two weeks before beginning work but received only two days of instruction. Once on the job, he worked 12 hours a day for four or more days weekly, up to 150 hours every two weeks due to dangerously low staffing levels. He said he had never before seen such a high staff turnover rate, and that “Corizon is just hiring bodies, trying to get their numbers up.” 

Vallejo reported that he had to make decisions “that someone with more education should be doing,” which led to dangerous situations. “We’re putting people’s lives on the line,” he added. 

For example, diabetic prisoners received their morning insulin so late they would not even be peaking before their afternoon doses. In protest of not receiving their medications, SMU-1 prisoners set their building on fire. Supervisors repeatedly ordered Vallejo and his co-workers to improperly set up and distribute medications. “We told her [our supervisor] we weren’t going to do it. It’s illegal. We can’t pass medicines that somebody else has poured. But they didn’t care.” 

Short staffing was only the tip of the iceberg. Vallejo further reported that emergency response kits were routinely raided for supplies that were not replaced, and thus were missing when needed. He fought with administrators for months to obtain dialysis for a prisoner and, in another case, a full year for treatment for a cancer patient. He often encountered empty oxygen tanks and broken EKG machines. 

Corizon always had advance notice of inspections by state auditors. Vallejo said he and his co-workers were routinely ordered to falsify records before inspectors arrived. Expired medications were hidden in locked rooms during inspections, then brought out to be dispensed afterward, he claimed.

Vallejo contacted administrators up through the regional nursing director and even Arizona’s Department of Labor. Corizon fired him for his efforts to draw attention to the company’s inadequate medical services and poor working conditions. While pointedly not responding to any of Vallejo’s complaints, Corizon spokesperson Martha Harbin said he was “terminated from his position for failure to perform required duties.” It was only after his firing that Vallejo contacted radio station KJZZ to bring these issues to the public’s attention. 

Former Corizon physician Jan Wilson and counselor Angela Fischer also blew the whistle on many of the company’s practices, including during an evidentiary hearing before U.S. Magistrate Judge David Duncan in the re-opened Parsons case. Fischer testified about severe staffing shortages that resulted in substandard medical care and prison guards sleeping while on suicide watch duty. It was during one of those naps that a prisoner managed to hang himself. 

In retaliation for her whistleblowing, guards retaliated against Fischer by refusing to bring prisoners to her office for scheduled appointments. Once, knowing the lock on her door was broken, guards brought a violent prisoner to her office unrestrained, then left. 

“I just pushed the door closed and held it with my body while she was banging the door against me,” Fischer stated. She also testified about mental health unit cells that stank of feces and urine, and were infested with vermin, while mice and cockroaches ate from prisoners’ food trays. After being thanked by Judge Duncan for her testimony, Fischer said, “I’m glad that I had a chance to speak up for people who don’t have the opportunity to speak up for themselves.” 

Beginning on July 1, 2019, Centurion Managed Care, a different for-profit contractor, will take over ADC medical care from Corizon, state officials announced in January. The cost per day per prisoner will increase from $15.164 to $16.604. Arizona prison officials publicly stated that switching to Centurion was “in the state’s best interest,” while in December 2018 the Parsons court appointed an independent expert – Dr. Marc Stern – to oversee ADC’s medical services. Earlier, in June 2018, the ADC was held in contempt by the federal district court, which imposed $1.45 million in fines against the state that was paid by Corizon. [See: PLN, Nov. 2018, p.1; May 2018, p.28].

Arizona prisoner Richard Washington, 64, was one of the more recent victims of inadequate medical care in the state’s prison system. Washington died on January 31, 2019; about a month before his death, he mailed a letter to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which is hearing the ADC’s appeal of the district court’s contempt ruling. “My greatest fear is that I’m going to die more sooner than later should this treatment – or lack thereof – continue,” Washington wrote.

On February 25, 2019, activists gathered outside the ADC’s headquarters in Phoenix to protest poor prison medical care, citing Washington’s death. The protesters included members of Puente Human Rights Movement and former prisoners.

“It’s very unjust,” said Erika Ovalle, one of the founding members of Puente. “And the fact that it’s being run by a private company, says a lot. You know, they want to cut corners. They’re just playing with lives at a certain point.”

Since Centurion presumably follows the same profit-driven business model as Corizon and other private medical service providers, it is unknown whether healthcare in Arizona prisons will improve under the ADC’s new contractor. 

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Sources: kjzz.org, azcentral.com

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