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Opinion | Prison healthcare contract could be a fool’s errand

By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter

Whether through ignorance, graft or just an unwillingness to look past the second ripple in the pond, the state’s current plan to address the prison healthcare crisis is a boondoggle.

That’s where the Alabama Department of Corrections is with its attempt to secure a new contractor to provide medical and mental health services for state inmates.

It’s time to scrap the current process and start over or risk embroiling Governor Kay Ivey’s administration in an unnecessary scandal in an election year.

The department’s actions, so far, have generated far more questions than answers. Chief among them: Why did the Department of Corrections decide to pursue a contract with Wexford Health Sources, despite its dubious and disturbing conduct in other states?

Wexford has been sued by the Mississippi attorney general, who is asking the company to repay $294 million it allegedly gained as a participant in a bribery scandal that led to criminal charges against Mississippi’s former prison commissioner and a former consultant for Wexford.

And this is not the only thing that has gone awry.

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The Department of Corrections says it plans to have the Wexford contract up and running by April 1. Is the date a cruel irony for tempting the fates of political destiny or just happenstance?

Just this past week, the Senate Finance and Taxation Committee refused to consider a $30 million supplemental appropriation, which the Department of Corrections says it needs to pay for Wexford’s services.

Also this last week, court proceedings continued before U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson about the current quality of the state’s mental health care.

While it’s abundantly clear the state will be required to improve services, the extent of the court-ordered remedies is still up in the air. Why is the state rushing to lock in a new contract when it doesn’t yet fully understand what terms the court may impose with regard to inmates’ future care?

From the beginning, sources close to this process have told APR the fear 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.

That’s a valid concern, but there are many others about how well this company was vetted and how it was selected.

Did a lawyer named Jon Ozmint in South Carolina lobby for the Alabama contract, and if so, should he have registered here as a lobbyist?

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Why did Alabama brush aside the serious questions raised about Wexford’s conduct in Mississippi? The attorney general’s lawsuit directly accuses the company of having a “backroom” relationship with the state’s former prison commissioner, funneling bribes and kickbacks to him through a consultant.

Why did the state ignore other red flags about Wexford’s performance in other states?

As APR has previously reported: Under Wexford’s management in the Indiana prison system, staffing levels fell short of requirements, services were backlogged and more than 8,000 doses of a frequently abused pain medication went missing, according to press reports.

In Illinois, Wexford’s work has been criticized, with a court monitor pointing to “grossly insufficient and extremely poor quality of psychiatric services.”

Since becoming Governor, Kay Ivey has, with considerable success, portrayed herself as a careful, steady administrator who makes good decisions and avoids political pitfalls.

Would it not be prudent for the governor to take a step back before her staff risks getting her embroiled in controversies like STARRS, CARES, eStart or the other ill-considered contracts of the past?

Facing an election is no time to champion another hasty project that ends up costing Alabama taxpayers millions of dollars with precious little to show for it.

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Scrapping all bids for prison healthcare contracts for now while waiting for more guidance from the federal court would seem like the smart course of action. For a process-oriented governor like Ivey, doing nothing is perhaps the hardest thing to do. In an election season with unforeseen difficulties, Ivey’s staffers should be reluctant to hitch the bosses’ wagon to a troubled company like Wexford.

Suspect deals involving tens of millions of taxpayer dollars are the very things that can drive a campaign dangerously off course. Even now, political operatives are hard at work to undermine her election. A contract with Wexford, given the company’s recent scandalous headlines, could be just the right fodder for negative campaign ads.

In policy matters, there are times when inaction is a necessary evil. Would it not be wise to wait rather than allowing a cabinet member or others in Gov. Ivey’s administration to push her into another prison debacle like the one that surrounded disgraced Gov. Robert Bentley’s $800 million scheme to build super-max prisons?

There is presently no reasonable explanation for pushing ahead with Wexford’s contract while the Mississippi case is still pending.

It’s becoming more and more evident that trying to push this contract to fruition by April 1 would be the ultimate April Fool’s joke – and the joke would be on Gov. Ivey and the taxpayers of Alabama.

It is simply a fool’s errand.


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Bill Britt is editor-in-chief at the Alabama Political Reporter and host of The Voice of Alabama Politics. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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