Jail health care provider terminates contract

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

The Metropolitan Detention Center’s medical provider, Centurion Detention Health Services, has informed Bernalillo County that it intends to leave in six months – more than a year before the end of its contract.

The departure appears to be tied to concerns the county had about the care the company was providing.

In mid-March, the Journal published an article detailing how nine people had died at MDC in the course of a year. Six of those people died while detoxing from drugs or alcohol or in medical units under the care of Centurion.

Advocates had criticized the health care company for its involvement in those deaths, saying “the medical and mental health care in the jail is unconstitutional because it is so poor.” A union official said medical staff often left correctional officers to carry the burden in life-or-death situations.

Bernalillo County Manager Julie Morgas Baca called the deaths “tragic and horrible” and said the county was working with Centurion on improving operations.

On Friday, after news that the company is leaving had leaked, Morgas Baca said that in early April the county “expressed concern to Centurion over staff vacancies and continuity of care” and asked the company to respond to those specific concerns.

“Before those concerns were answered, Centurion exercised its right to terminate the contract,” Morgas Baca said. “The county has now moved forward with the competitive request for proposal process.”

An attorney for Centurion did not respond to requests for comment. A jail spokeswoman also did not respond to questions.

The St. Louis-based company was awarded the contract to provide medical, dental, mental health and psychiatric services at the jail in 2018 and it began operating in the beginning of 2019. According to the contract, it had funding for about 90 health care workers.

It was the county’s largest contract and the company was to be paid about $13 million a year.

“In three years the county has paid Centurion roughly $40 million per the terms of the contract,” Morgas Baca said. “Additionally, the county provided, through CARES (Act) funding, $1 million for Personal Protective Equipment for Centurion staff.”

Under the contract, either party could terminate at any time as long as it provides 180-day notice.

On April 19, the company sent a terse letter to Morgas Baca doing just that. Its last day at the jail will be Oct. 16, the letter states.

Attorney Peter Cubra, a longtime advocate for inmates at the Metropolitan Detention Center, said he is glad to see Centurion go.

Centurion operates in jails and prisons throughout the country and used to provide health care for the New Mexico Corrections Department.

A local lawyer has started the process of filing a lawsuit against Centurion regarding one of the deaths at MDC last year and has filed dozens of suits alleging mistreatment by the company in the state’s prisons.

“Because the environment of for-profit incarceration medical providers is a swamp, where deferring care and avoiding care is the primary strategy for making profit, it is no surprise that Centurion has done a bad job,” Cubra said. “Their reputation nationally is that they are in the bottom half in terms of quality … It appeared to me that their Albuquerque performance was even worse than the national performance.”

At a meeting of the Albuquerque/Bernalillo County Government Commission on Thursday evening, County Commissioner Steven Michael Quezada said the departure could open the door for a local company or organization to get the contract instead.

“I’m hopeful that when we look for a new provider at MDC that we look for a local company,” Quezada said. “We look for somebody that is going to have investment in this community and that way we create jobs in New Mexico and we create those types of opportunity.”

Cubra echoed the sentiment and said in the mid-1990s the University of New Mexico Hospital served the jail. He said that enabled providers to have medical information about inmates and their needs from the start and allowed staff to arrange for continuing care after people were discharged.

“Almost every person who goes to our jail receives community-based health care and mental health care from local providers,” Cubra said. “A big problem with Centurion is they failed to provide continuity of services to people when they came in and failed to arrange for continuity of services to those people when they leave.”

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