The chairman of the Alabama Legislature’s joint oversight committee on prisons says lawmakers must “have transparent oversight” of a health-care provider picked to service the state’s prisons that is embroiled in legal turmoil in Mississippi.
The Alabama Department of Corrections recently selected Wexford Health Services, Inc. to provide medical care in state prisons. Commissioner Jeff Dunn said in December the Pittsburgh-based company was chosen “based on a combination of quality of care and overall cost.”
The exact details of the contract must still be ironed out, but will be in the ballpark of $100 million annually to serve Alabama’s 20,000 state prisoners. The contract calls for a 25 percent boost in staff both for medical care and mental health, and the Legislature must give final approval.
Wexford is one of a dozen companies that the state of Mississippi has sued for its alleged involvement in a bribery scheme involving former state prison commissioner Chris Epps and former legislator Cecil McCrory. Wexford held Mississippi’s prison health-care contract from 2006 to 2015 and paid consulting fees to McCrory.
A grand jury indicted McCrory and Epps in 2014 on charges that Epps accepted bribes to steer prison contracts to McCrory. Last year, Epps received a 20-year prison sentence while McCrory got hit with eight-and-a-half years in prison.
Ward told Yellowhammer News that Dunn told the prison oversight committee on Wednesday that he and a panel of four others selected Wexford, one of three companies in the running for the contract. All three of those companies face legal trouble in other states, Ward said.
“All three companies are being sued in different states for different reasons,” he said.
The prison oversight committee will continue examining the issue when it meets again in February.
“We want to make sure we have transparent oversight of what’s going on,” Ward said. “Of course, we can’t force them to pick one company or another, but we have right to get access to how the decision was made, what’s the process, how much are we talking about.”
“The Mississippi case for Wexford does stand out, and I think it’s something we have an obligation in the Legislature to ask a lot about and continue questioning their ability to perform the contract in a good way,” he added.
One of the firms that Wexford beat out was Corizon Correctional Care Health, the current provider. Alabama now faces a federal lawsuit alleging its correctional system isn’t providing adequate mental health care for its inmates. Corizon also faced scrutiny in New York City, which ended a contract with the firm after it claimed that Corizon hired doctors and workers with criminal histories.
Corizon issued a statement to Yellowhammer News that said after the company’s contract with New York City expired in 2015, the new administration chose not to outsource correctional health care moving forward.
“While our company typically screens its own employees, the New York contract mandated that the city perform all background checks,” the statement read. “Corizon submitted each and every applicant for the necessary screening, but an audit later determined the city granted security clearances without conducting background checks as the contract required.”
“The issues arising in New York had nothing to do with allegations of kickbacks or bribery. While legal issues arise in prison health care just as they do in every other medical setting, corruption is not and should never be considered ‘business as usual’ in our industry,” the statement continued.
Alabama has submitted a plan in the federal suit that calls for doubling the mental health staff in prisons at an annual estimated cost of $10 million, with additional money needed for programs. Prison funding promises to be one of the hottest topics during the 2018 legislative session.
Wexford said in a statement it didn’t know about the misdeeds of Epps or McCrory and was ensnared in Mississippi’s lawsuit only because it had employed a consultant mentioned in the investigation, AL.com reported.
“We were never accused of doing anything wrong or inappropriate,” said company marketing director Wendelyn Pekich.