Jail Healthcare

A doctor conducts a health assessment on an inmate at the El Paso County Jail.

The El Paso County Sheriff's Office has recommended rehiring the for-profit jail health care provider that it cut ties with two years ago in pursuit of better care for inmates.

On Tuesday, county commissioners will consider a deal that would put the medical needs of the jail's roughly 1,500 inmates in the hands of Wellpath, a Tennessee-based company that's reportedly the nation's largest correctional health care provider.

The proposed one-year contract, valued at nearly $8.7 million, is a stopgap until the Sheriff’s Office can implement a new model using community providers, Sheriff Bill Elder told The Gazette on Sunday.

"We're giving Wellpath a single-year contract because we flat ran out of time to get the community-based model together," Elder said. "We don't want to keep going through the same thing over and over again.

"We just have had a hard time replacing a model that's been in place for 20 years or more."

Elder began considering the change this year amid concerns about the performance of the jail's current medical contractor, Armor Correctional Health Services.

The county has charged that Armor's missteps have delayed critical care for inmates during emergencies, led to a series of hepatitis A infections and left at least one inmate without vital medications.

Meanwhile, the Sheriff's Office has faced mounting legal claims of substandard care, including a threat of a $5 million lawsuit from a family of a woman who died at the jail last fall after medical staffers allegedly ignored her pleas for help.

The contract with Armor was renewable for two more years, but the Miami-based Armor told the sheriff in May that it would exercise its contractual right to cut ties with the county after 2019, saying the relationship had soured beyond repair.

Wellpath, one of a handful of private companies that dominate the correctional health care industry, faces dozens of lawsuits in federal courts across the country that allege violations of inmates' civil rights. Like similar companies, it's been accused of putting profits ahead of inmates' medical needs. 

For nearly two decades, until summer 2017, the jail was served by Correct Care Solutions — which became Wellpath after a merger last year — and other companies under its corporate umbrella. Its founder, Gerard Boyle, was indicted by a federal grand jury last month for allegedly bribing a Virginia sheriff to get contract renewals and other perks.

When Armor took over the jail's medical contract, it unexpectedly inherited a system that was out of compliance with national standards and a “serious backlog of critical task” — including more than 1,500 medical requests — leftover from Correct Care Solutions' tenure, Armor CEO Otto Campo said in a May 9 letter to the sheriff.

Curing those deficiencies took “herculean efforts,” including bids to recruit nurses and other practitioners and additional training for the jail’s medical staff, Campo said in the letter. Those measures, largely taken at the company’s expense, helped the jail narrowly avert a loss of a national health care accreditation, he wrote.

Elder said he's "absolutely" concerned about similar problems if the county again hires Wellpath. The Sheriff's Office will hire a staff member who's primary duty will be to ensure that the vendor provides the services they're required to under the deal, he said.

The county accepted contractor proposals to replace Armor for about a month this fall, and three companies responded. One only offered pharmaceutical services. The other only served one other, much smaller jail, Elder said. The third was Wellpath.

"There's about three companies in the country that offer medical services to a jail of our size," said sheriff's spokeswoman Jackie Kirby. "We don't have a lot of options."

Wellpath did not respond to an email requesting comment on Sunday. According to its website, it has "almost 15,000 seasoned health care professionals currently serving over 300,000 adult and juvenile patients every single day."

The contract would cover medical, dental, behavioral health and pharmaceutical services.

Elder hopes that, by early 2021, the county will, instead, be able to rely on local providers who will not only offer better care to those in the jail, but also continue to provide them with services once they leave to help re-integrate them into the community.

"We have a serious commitment by local providers to help get us there," said Elder, who named some potential providers but still needed to verify their participation.

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