by Kevin W. Bliss
New Mexico’s Bernalillo County is terminating the contract with its jail’s private healthcare contractor effective July 25, 2023. County Manager Julie Morgas Baca sent word to YesCare – the corporate descendant of Corizon Health – on January 26, 2023, pulling the plug two years early on a $64.9 million four-year contract that began in September 2021.
It is the second contract canceled in two years with a healthcare contractor at the county’s Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) in Albuquerque. When county commissioners voted to hire YesCare, it was because previous provider Centurion Detention Health Services had quit in a firestorm that followed nine jail deaths in just one year.
Tennessee-based YesCare is the golem Corizon Health brought to life with much of the firm’s viable business when it successfully petitioned a Texas court to let it slough off its liabilities into another new corporation called Tehum Care Services. That firm then promptly declared bankruptcy. Known as the “Texas Two-Step,” the procedure is legal but ethically dubious; Tehum told the federal bankruptcy court for the Southern District of Texas in May 2023 that it had 30 unsecured creditors owed a total of $38,438,751. See: In Re: Tehum Care Services, Inc., USBC (S.D. Tex.), Case No. 23-90086.
To fill its contractually required 105 positions at MDC, YesCare recruited much of the staff that Centurion abandoned. Those same employees now say healthcare has declined since the change, with several reportedly leaving over concerns about safety and well-being of both prisoners and staff. Nurse Taileigh Sanchez, an 11-year veteran at MDC, testified in court that this was the worst medical care ever provided at the jail. Staffing levels are still considered critical, and three more detainees have died.
In September 2022, YesCare submitted a contract amendment providing for additional compensation to assist in staffing. The county commission refused to sign, saying YesCare was not even living up to current staffing requirements. MDC went for months without two medical doctors, a site physician or a medical director. Moreover, current records systems were so unmanageable as to actually hinder medical care, staffers said.
The county refused to hear any proposed amendments until current conditions met with contractual requirements. When that didn’t happen, county commissioners exercised the contract’s termination option, giving YesCare six months to exit the detention center.
On May 17, 2023, county commissioners made the rare move to end privatized healthcare at MDC. The University of New Mexico (UMN) Hospital will take over, under a partnership approved by the county and the UNM Board of Regents in April 2023. The county commission’s latest vote endorsed a Joint Powers Agreement for the two to work together.
Details of the arrangement – including a price tag – remain to be worked out. The final agreement will also need approval from the federal court for the District of New Mexico, which just approved a new settlement agreement in a decades-old class-action over jail conditions on January 17, 2023, requiring improved specialty care, sick calls and intake screening for mental illness. See: McClendon v. City of Albuquerque, USDC (D.N.M.), Case No. 6:95-cv-00024.
Local attorney Parrish Collins, whose clients have several jail lawsuits pending, said current YesCare staff should undergo a “vigorous rehiring process” with UNM, and that jail guards “and other county personnel must have a duty to report clear medical concerns.”
“Otherwise,” Collins added, “UNM will end up facing lawsuits regarding matters over which they had no knowledge.”
Additional source: Albuquerque Journal, Source NM
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