Lawmakers eye prison health reform

Article published Apr 14, 2011
By Thatcher Moats

MONTPELIER — Roughly 12 years ago Vermont began hiring private companies to provide health care to inmates housed in the state’s prisons. 

Some lawmakers in Montpelier think now is a good time to take a close look at whether that’s the best way to deliver quality health care and mental health services to inmates. 

The House Committee on Corrections and Institutions has been taking testimony on a bill that would have the state’s Department of Corrections analyze the cost and feasibility of finding a way to provide care without hiring contractors. 

Rep. Jason Lorber, lead sponsor of the bill and a member of the committee, said the timing of his bill, which was introduced earlier this year, has nothing to do with a specific incident or problem with the existing care in Vermont’s prisons.

The lack of a specific crisis is one reason Lorber believes now is a good time to review the prison health care system. 

“Let’s not react to horrific circumstances,” said Lorber, a Democrat from Burlington. “We can do a better analysis when the headlines aren’t whipping us around.” 

The bill is being considered more than a year after Ashley Ellis, a 23-year-old from Rutland, died after she was refused medicine to treat an eating disorder that affected her heart. An independent report on Ellis’ death by the nonprofit group Disability Rights Vermont highlighted communications breakdowns and staffing problems between the state and Prison Health Services, the company that once provided health care in the state prisons.

The state switched prison health providers due in part to Ellis’ death. Ellis was serving a 30-day sentence for a traffic offense that left a man seriously injured. 

Lorber said his legislation is not in response to Ellis’ death. 

“Let’s not wait until another Ashley comes along,” Lorber said. “Let’s not wait until tragedy strikes.” 

Now is a good time to begin studying prison health care, Lorber said, because the state is already studying broader health care reform. In addition, the state is one year into a three-year contract with another prison health care company, Correct Care Services, so the state is not facing a tight contract renewal deadline. 

If the state does want to make a change, launching a study soon would position the state to make changes when the $17-million-a-year contract with CCS expires in 2013, Lorber said. 

Lorber is not sure of best way to improve the quality of health care, he said, but he is convinced there are ways it can be done better. 

Several lawmakers said they have not been hearing complaints about prison health care provided by CCS, and neither has Defender General Matthew Valerio. The Defender General’s office includes the Prisoners’ Rights Office. 

“The Prisoners’ Rights Office still does a lot of work on that front, but nothing has bubbled up to my level,” Valerio said. 

Rep. Alice Emmons, who chairs the House Committee on Corrections and Institutions, said the state typically has awarded contracts to prison health companies that are the lowest bidders, but CCS was not the low bidder. 

Valerio does not think eliminating private health care contractors and having the state take that responsibility would improve health care in prisons. 

A lot of the same issues have been around for years regardless of whether the state is administering the health care system or it’s being administered by private contractors. 

“Some of the issues arise because of the nature of the clientele,” Valerio said. “They come in with substance-abuse issues, addictions, they’re living poor lifestyles beforehand, and they come in with any number of medical problems that you see and address.” 

Better oversight of the prison health care system by the state would be a better way to improve the system, Valerio said.

Moving away from private contractors could also cost more. The state began using private prison health care companies because it’s less expensive. 

Emmons said her committee will have to continue defining what the goals of the proposed legislation are and then decide if it wants to move forward.