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HRDC Advances in Suit Against Centurion to Obtain New Mexico Prisoner Medical Litigation Records

by David M. Reutter

On December 11, 2021, New Mexico’s First Judicial District Court, County of Santa Fe, denied a motion to dismiss a suit filed by the Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC), publisher of Prison Legal News (PLN) and Criminal Legal News (CLN), against Centurion Correctional Healthcare of New Mexico (Centurion) and the New Mexico Corrections Department (NMCD), seeking to pry loose public records from litigation related to the company’s provision of health care to New Mexico prisoners.

Centurion is a wholly owned subsidiary of Centene Corp., a massive $111.1 billion health insurer that also provides policies subsidized by Medicaid, Medicare, the Affordable Care Act and Tricare, the U.S. Department of Defense health insurance program.

On August 12, 2020, HRDC sent the company and NMCD requests “seeking all records of litigation,” including verdicts and settlements, “against Centurion and/or its employees or agents where Centurion and/or its insurers paid $1,000 or more to resolve claims” anytime “from January 1, 2010, to present.”

Centurion took over the contract to provide health care to NMCD prisoners on July 1, 2019, from another private firm, Corizon Correctional Healthcare, which had taken over from competitor Wexford Health Sources in 2013. But Centurion was then already providing health care to some of the state’s prisoners held for NMCD at the Northeast New Mexico Detention Facility (NENMDF), under subcontract from that prison’s private operator, Florida-based GEO Group.

In a July 2020 op-ed published in the Arizona Daily Star, Centurion CEO Steven Wheeler warned that after his firm assumed control of health care for all state prisoners, “it will take time to fully implement a new integrated approach across all 10 ADC correctional facilities—and there will inevitably be bumps and obstacles along the way.”

When HRDC sent its request a few weeks later, Centurion did not respond. NMCD responded on August 19, 2020, stating it had no records responsive to the request. NMCD also said it had forwarded the request to a Centurion, “but they declined to provide any records to NMCD in response.” At that point, NMCD considered the matter closed.

Meanwhile, on March 30, 2021, Centurion agreed to pay $215,000 to settle civil claims by the federal Department of Justice that the firm operated its pharmacy at NENMDF on an expired authorization from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.

Just over three months later, on July 21, 2021, HRDC filed its mandamus petition in the state court. The complaint alleges that the records HRDC requested are public records under the New Mexico Inspection of Public Records Act (IPRA), so the state and its contractors are legally bound to hand them over.

As HRDC’s suit makes clear, “[s]et­tlement agreements resulting from civil claims against a third-party private entity for conduct arising under a contract with a public entity to provide a public function, such as providing medical care to incarcerated persons, are subject to disclosure under the IPRA.”

In her most recent order in the case, Judge Kathleen McGarry Ellenwood took a dim view of defendants’ attempts to argue otherwise, writing for the Court that HRDC “has pleaded sufficient facts to demonstrate that Defendant Centurion Correctional Healthcare of New Mexico, LLC, was performing a public function and the records requested from Defendant Centurion Correctional Healthcare of New Mexico, LLC, arose from the entity’s performance of a public function.” See: Human Rights Defense Center v. Centurion Correctional Healthcare of New Mexico, Case No. D101-CV-2021-01620, State of New Mexico First Judicial Circuit Court (County of Santa Fe 2021).

HRDC has won numerous public records lawsuits against private prison companies around the country seeking similar records, including several in New Mexico. 

Additional sources: Centene Corp., InmateAID, Phoenix New Times, U.S. Department of Justice

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Related legal case

Human Rights Defense Center v. Centurion Correctional Healthcare of New Mexico