El Paso County commissioners on Tuesday approved a change to the jail’s medical services provider, terminating a nearly 20-year relationship with a company facing broad scrutiny over claims of substandard care.
Armor Correctional Health Services of Miami will take over in July under a six-month contract for $3.7 million — a rate on pace to exceed last year’s costs by nearly 40 percent.
That translates to roughly $2 million in spending per year, Undersheriff Joe Breister said at Tuesday’s board meeting, describing the deal as the “best bang for the buck” amid spiraling costs in the health-care sector.
“For all three finalists, we were looking at a $1.8 to $2.4 million increase in cost for medical care,” Breister told commissioners.
The contract could be renewed for four years at the end of the initial period, Breister said. He didn’t specify how medical services would change except to promise an improvement in how medications are administered. Sheriff Bill Elder wasn’t present.
The board’s 5-0 vote came 6½ minutes after the issue was introduced on the commission floor.
The commissioners didn’t address the thorny litigation history of Armor Correctional Health Services or the company it will replace, Correct Care Solutions of Nashville, Tenn.
Correct Care, which has held the contract under various names since 1998, faces more than 40 pending lawsuits in Colorado, including six alleging wrongful deaths, and dozens more in other states. Armor Correctional Health Services, which holds contracts in eight states, likewise has drawn lawsuits alleging that it trims costs to keep profits high.
A three-part investigation by the Florida Sun-Sentinel published in December found that the company allowed mentally ill inmates to languish without proper care, leading to lawsuits and preventable deaths at the Broward County jail.
The company also was sued over a dehydration death at the Milwaukee County jail and a suicide in Tulsa, Okla., after an inmate was deprived of his prescription medicine, according to published reports.
Both companies have denied wrongdoing.
Such criticisms have emerged as a trend in the debate over whether for-profit companies provide adequate care in the growing industry of keeping inmates healthy.
In presenting the contract Tuesday, Breister downplayed questions of substandard care, suggesting problems are to be expected given the “high risk, high liability” in the correctional health-care business.
Many inmates have gone years without medical care before being booked into jail, Breister said.
“Quite frankly, I think you’ll find that any provider in this area is going to incur liability just given the high-risk population we deal with,” he said.
Breister said the Sheriff’s Office began considering other options for jail health care last summer, after talks with Correct Care Solutions on steps they could take to improve services.
“We weren’t unhappy,” Breister said. “There were just some things we wanted to see a little improvement on,” he added without elaborating.
Breister said company representatives said it would take an additional $1.6 million on top of its $5.3 million contract to bring services “up to par,” in Breister’s words.
That led the sheriff’s office to issue a request for proposals in December. Seven companies responded, and three finalists were chosen, including Correct Care Solutions and Southwest Correctional Medical Group of Texas.
A four-person panel reviewed the proposals with the sheriff’s legal advisor, attorney Lisa Kirkman, sitting in on discussions. The group selected Armor Correctional Health Services after weighing its proposed staffing and reimbursement rates for medication and outpatient services, finding that it offered a better deal than the competitors.
Breister said Armor Correctional Health Services is on the “cutting edge” when it comes to administering medication to inmates.
Inmates who bring prescriptions will receive their medications “the minute” they are booked, he said.
“So there’s not a stopping of prescription and picking up a day or two later after an initial screening or assessment,” Breister said.
The dispensing of medications is a central issue in a wrongful death lawsuit against Correct Care Solutions stemming from a 2014 death at the Fremont County jail, where inmate John Patrick Walter shed 30 pounds in three weeks after he was deprived of a 6-milligram daily dose of clonazepam, an anti-anxiety drug commonly known as Klonopin. Walter died of medication withdrawal, the El Paso County coroner’s office concluded in April.
Legal Affairs reporter
Colorado Springs Gazette