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The Bernalillo County Commission last week approved a $64.9 million contract for jail medical services, bringing on a new provider to replace an outgoing vendor set to exit its contract ahead of schedule.
County officials say the new agreement with Corizon Health – which would cover four years with an option to extend – will increase health care staffing at the Metropolitan Detention Center, hopefully reducing the strain on the facility’s guards. The new positions include seven certified medical assistants, who will take over the jail’s suicide watches, alcohol withdrawal watches and other medical observations.
“This is going to help our corrections officers and put them back in the role of providing security within the facility and having actually a medical person that is handling observation watches,” Roseanne Otero Gonzales, MDC’s director of administrative services, told the commission.
She said the contract also adds a new addiction specialist and what she called other “enhancements” including an emergency response plan that requires Corizon have at least one staff member trained in advanced cardiac life support at each emergency medical incident.
Commissioner Adriann Barboa said she was grateful for the thought that went into the contract and the new staffing coming as part of it, noting both the spate of recent jail deaths and the need to relieve some pressure on the existing corrections officers.
“We’ve had more than 10 deaths this year, and that’s (about) people’s lives, first and foremost, and their families,” she said. “And that’s also just (about) the morale of our staff who … are dealing with and working with and providing care for folks that nobody else really wants to deal with.”
The new contract funds 105 medical staff positions, and Corizon intends to keep employees who served at the facility under Centurion Detention Health Services, which pulled out of its contract more than a year early.
Centurion had been operating at the jail since early 2019 and had signed a four-year contract with the county for about $13 million a year.
Over the course of a year starting in April 2020, nine inmates died while in custody. The causes of death varied, but six were detoxing from drugs or alcohol or in medical units under the care of Centurion.
After the Journal published a story on the deaths in March, the county manager said she expressed concern to the medical provider about staff vacancies and continuity of care and asked the company to respond to those specific concerns. Instead, Centurion decided to leave.
Over the past month two more inmates have died – one at the jail and one after being taken to the hospital.
Attorney Peter Cubra, a longtime advocate for people in the jail, said he was “bitterly disappointed” at the county’s decision to replace Centurion with another large for-profit corporation.
“Corizon had a long and horrible history of getting millions of dollars from the state of New Mexico to provide inadequate care to prisoners,” Cubra said. “… I don’t understand why anyone would choose a similar corporation to the one that has just left.”
He and others had been advocating for the University of New Mexico Hospital to provide medical care instead.
Corizon did not respond to requests for comment about Cubra’s concerns.
But in response to the commissioners questions about the depth and scope of the company’s services, senior vice president Karen Davies said the company aims to treat patients “holistically,” whether their needs are medical or related to behavioral health.
“We don’t skimp on medications, on visits to specialists, on any service that a patient needs inside a correctional facility; that’s what we want to make sure we deliver to them,” she said. “You never know – it could be your son, your daughter, your cousin, your mother. Anybody could be incarcerated. They’re not inmates to us – they’re patients, first and foremost.”
Corizon, which provided health care at the state’s prisons from 2007 to 2016 for $37.5 million a year, has been sued over 150 times, according to the Santa Fe New Mexican. The suits allege delayed, negligent and deficient medical care and retaliation by staff when inmates complained.
In 2016, the Journal, the Santa Fe New Mexican, and the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government sued Corizon when it refused to release medical malpractice and sexual abuse settlement agreements it had reached with inmates. A state court ruled that Corizon had to provide them under the state’s Inspection of Public Records Act – a decision upheld on appeal.
The suit prompted Barboa to ask the provider about transparency at the commission meeting.
Corizon attorney Maya Patel told the commission that was a “one-off issue” and that Corizon was trying to protect inmate information. She said the company would work within its new contract with Bernalillo County, releasing “anything that needs to be disclosed.”
“We have no intention of trying to hide things,” she said.
The commission voted unanimously to approve the new deal – which Barboa noted was the county’s largest contract – although Steven Michael Quezada expressed wariness about the rate of provider turnover. He said it’s the third MDC medical contract in his five years on the commission.
“I’m not judging anybody; I’m saying it’s a difficult job and I understand that,” Quezada said, adding that he would like the county in the future to try partnering with local service providers.”
Corizon is based in Tennessee.
“I truly believe in my heart that if we have our providers that come from within the state that we can hold them to a higher level. It’s not anything against our new providers at all. … Historically, this is what happens: They find themselves in a position, and they can just leave. I think somebody inside the state, it’s not that easy to do,” Quezada said.