by Chad Marks
“They don’t care who dies, how they die or what they do to you.”
That’s what former Kansas prisoner Sarah Loretta Cook said about Corizon Health, the state’s prison medical care provider. With expected increases in the Kansas prison population over the next five years, Corizon’s contract with the state’s Department of Corrections (DOC) is projected to balloon from $70 million to $83 million annually. But the company’s track record in Kansas has not been stellar.
One prisoner developed a brain fungus resulting in the 27-year-old’s death. As for Cook, she had to have much of her colon removed after she did not receive her prescribed medication for months. She has now filed a lawsuit – one of more than 48 naming Corizon and the Kansas DOC involving medical care.
During fiscal years 2016 and 2017, state officials slapped Corizon with $3.4 million in penalties for failure to maintain its contracted staffing levels. The company was penalized another $2.8 million for the same problem in 2018, along with an additional $534,880 fine for not meeting other performance standards.
Since it was first awarded the DOC contract in 2014, Corizon’s performance has been audited annually by the University of Kansas Medical Center (UKMC), which tracks metrics for a dozen standards such as intake health assessments, sick calls and group therapy. When the company drops below 90 percent compliance for any of the standards, the DOC assesses $100 to $300 per incident. If Corizon fails to correct the problem within six months, the penalty begins to increase and continues rising until compliance is achieved.
David Tatarsky, the DOC’s Director of Health Services, said the audits are guided by complaints received from prisoners and their families, which are often directed to UKMC. State law gives prison wardens 10 days to address a medical issue upon receiving a written grievance, after which it can then be appealed directly to DOC Secretary Roger Werholtz.
“We look for trends. We try to get the most bang for our buck,” Tatarsky said. “We try and focus where we think the need is greatest.”
Of the nine performance standards audited in 2018, Corizon was found fully compliant with just one: specialty services, such as X-rays, dermatology, chemotherapy, and obstetric and gynecological services, all of which are penalized at a higher rate. Compliance with other standards fell well short of 90 percent, totaling 70 percent for health groups – including group therapy and workshops on anger management or addiction – and less than 10 percent for sick calls, intake assessments and care for prisoners with chronic conditions such as diabetes and HIV.
Even with signing bonuses of up to $7,000 for registered nurses and $10,000 for psychologists – which together account for half its unfilled positions – Corizon is having trouble maintaining required staffing levels, according to DOC finance director Keith Bradshaw. He blamed “low unemployment rates throughout the state as well as competition in the highly competitive health care industry.”
Corizon pays its registered nurses in Kansas $25 an hour, below the state average of $28. It pays dental assistants $15 an hour, below the average of $16.86. However, the company’s behavioral health professionals earn $24 an hour, at the top of the statewide average range of $16 to $24 per hour.
Bradshaw also noted that medical referrals to private providers outside the prison system involve additional costs in vehicle expense and overtime for guards who must accompany the prisoners. Due to “the small staff that we have and the size of this contract and the services being provided,” he noted “it’s not realistic to expect every facility and every outcome to be looked at every month.”
For example, Corizon was noncompliant from June 2017 to December 2017 when the DOC was transferring prisoners between facilities, so it did not penalize the firm for problems during that time. Nevertheless, in February 2019 Bradshaw reported to state lawmakers that unless Corizon improves its services to the state’s prison system, its contract will be renewed for only a one-year term rather than two years.
“If things continue to improve, we’ll go ahead and pick up that second year,” Bradshaw said. “If we continue to have issues, then we’ll look at doing a rebid.”
Corizon spokeswoman Eve Hutcherson said the company treats “all requirements very seriously in our mission to provide exceptional care to the patients we serve as the DOC’s partner.”
However, the more than $6.7 million in penalties that Kansas has imposed on Corizon over the past several years belies that claim.
Sources: kake.com, kansas.com, kansascity.com, usnews.com, kcur.org, wibw.com
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