By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
In righting the ship of state, Gov. Kay Ivey has demonstrated shrewd political instincts since taking office earlier this year, but her administration took a potentially disastrous turn this past week on a prison healthcare contract.
Several reports on companies bidding to provide federally mandated healthcare service to Alabama’s prison systems found Pennsylvania-based Wexford Health Sources, Inc., has routinely underperformed and is currently caught up in a major bribery scandal in Mississippi.
When the Department of Corrections announced late Thursday that it had selected Wexford Health Sources Inc. – it appears the administration also ignored the red flag warnings that have been reported about the company’s performance in Indiana and Illinois.
Reminiscent of past scandals where the state chooses to cut corners rather than consider the long-term ramification of its “cost savings measures,” Wexford looks to join the ranks of STARRS, CARES, eSTART and the costly VoIP ventures that have resulted in hundreds of millions in tax dollar squandered in the name of savings.
Lawmakers who have looked at the various prison healthcare providers speaking on background said Wexford is the state’s top choice because it is the lowest bidder. “Here is another situation where the state will waste tens of millions to have a few hundred thousand,” said APR’s sources. “Wexford lobbying efforts are paying big dividends for someone other than the state,” one source said.
Wexford’s ties to a prison bribery scandal in Mississippi as reported by APR earlier this year is just one instance of the company’s worrisome history that also includes accusations of underperformance in Indiana and Illinois.
A court monitor found this past fall that the Illinois Department of Corrections under Wexford’s direction had failed to address the requirements of a federal court settlement involving mental health care.
Among other things, the monitor cited “grossly insufficient and extremely poor quality of psychiatric services.”
In Indiana, records obtained by Alabama Political Reporter show that Wexford is falling short of required staffing levels, particularly in the area of mental and behavioral healthcare, which is a big problem area in Alabama. Wexford’s staff shortfalls also have led to backlogs in providing care, especially with regard to prisoners with chronic medical conditions, including diabetes and HIV.
Last week, Mary Sells reported about Wexford’s troubles the Decatur Daily. Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, told Sells he had only recently learned about Wexford’s troubling past. Ward also said,“the three other companies competing for the contract ‘also had knocks against them.’” Ward’s defense seems to leave out that Wexford is the only firm of the three that is currently the subject of a lawsuit claiming kickbacks to a prison commissioner to retain a lucrative contract.
Ward did concede that the prison oversight committee would be taking a closer look at Wexford in light these “new” revelations.
However, in a written statement to APR the Ivey Administration doubled down on Wexford saying, “A review committee comprised of state officials spent several months assessing proposals from four healthcare companies that specialize in correctional health care. The RFP review committee considered each company’s experience and qualifications, delivery of care, staffing requirements and compensation, among other factors.” A statement from ADOC also reinforced its committeemen to the scandal-tainted company adding “The ADOC will enter negotiations with Wexford, which is required by the state’s procurement process until an agreement to the contract is reached.”
Evaluating mental and general healthcare providers is a result of federal Judge Myron Thompson’s judgment that state-provided psychological healthcare services within the department of corrections were “horrendously inadequate.” Thompson’s ruling on prison mental health services is seen by many as an omen of what is coming when the Judge decides on general medical care in correctional facilities.
However, seeing that Ward who heads the prison oversight committee is just now learning about Wexford’s questionable past, and given that ADOC Commissioner Jeff Dunn has said ADOC is proceeding with contract negotiations with Wexford despite these concerns, should cast doubt over the entire process.
Sources close to this process have told APR the fear all along has been that Wexford would submit a “lowball” bid to get Alabama’s business – and then try to bump up the price later to meet minimum standards for care.
But even if that were not a possibility, the ethical concerns are something the Ivey administration should consider before committing hundreds of millions in taxpayer’s money to a company under investigation for allegedly paying out bribes.
Gov. Kay Ivey’s administration has so far avoided the types of scandals like STARRS and others that plagued the previous administration and led to an investigation by the public corruption unit of the attorney general’s office. However, given Dunn and the administration’s recent statements about Wexford, the honeymoon may be over.
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