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After Mississippi scandals, committee pumps brakes on prison health contract

Chip Brownlee

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By Chip Brownlee
Alabama Political Reporter

An Alabama legislative oversight committee is pumping the brakes on a $360 million contract between the Alabama Department of Corrections and a Pittsburgh-based prison healthcare provider.

The Legislative Contract Review Committee delayed the proposed contract with Wexford Health Sources Thursday after lawmakers expressed concern over a Mississippi corrections bribery scandal involving the company.

The Alabama Department of Corrections chose the company last year to provide comprehensive medical and mental health care to upward of 20,000 state inmates at a cost of $360.4 million. The contract, which would begin in April and extend until 2020, is on hold for 45 days.

The Contract Review Committee, though given the oversight authority over state contracts, cannot block its implementation. The Governor’s Office holds the last word over whether to give ADOC approval to finalize the contract.

“There are just some questions floating around out there,” Contract Review chairman Jack Williams told the Associated Press. “I held it up in order to give the governor’s office time to evaluate these other concerns that have been raised primarily from the state of Mississippi.”

Commissioner Jeff Dunn said Thursday he will work with Williams to resolve some of the concerns raised by the committee.

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“We are pleased the committee is thoroughly reviewing this important contract that will provide the necessary healthcare services throughout the state’s prison system,” Dunn said in a statement to APR.

The Department of Corrections began accepting bids on the contract last year. After the application window closed in August, ADOC selected Wexford as the vendor.

The issues over the contract come as the Senate Thursday approved a $30 million supplement to the Department of Corrections’ funding this fiscal year — an increase needed to comply with a recent court decision that mandated changes to medical and mental health care in Alabam’s prisons.

The supplemental funding heads to the Alabama House of Representatives.

Federal Judge Myron Thompson said in his ruling last year that ADOC’s mental health care system was “horrendously inadequate” and ordered broad changes. The ruling said ADOC failed to provide constitutional health care.

Ivey said Thursday that she had not yet made a decision on the contract, but believed it imperative to move forward.

“Certainly health care in our prisons is important, and I have confidence in the firm but I will have to get the details and review the decision and why,” Ivey said Thursday afternoon. “The health care contract is vital to meet the court’s challenge to Alabama, and I’m confident that we’ll find a solution to it.”

Wexford was one of several companies and firms in Mississippi that paid consulting fees to a former Mississippi state legislator, Cecil McCrory, who last year pleaded guilty to bribing Mississippi prison commissioner Chris Epps, according to The Clarion-Ledger in Mississippi. The bribes were allegedly in exchange for Epps’ efforts to steer state prison contracts to those who stuffed his pockets.

Epps has been accused of taking more than $1.4 million in bribes and kickbacks over eight years to guide $800 million worth of contracts and agreements to companies owned by or associated with McCrory. The U.S. attorneys prosecuting the case said McCrory received about $4.6 million in revenue from his consulting contracts.

Wexford was not indicted directly in the case but was later sued along with other companies by the state of Mississippi for its alleged role in hiring consultants like McCrory to funnel bribes and kickbacks to Epps. Wexford later terminated its contract with McCrory after the allegations were made public. ADOC has said it would stick by its selection of Wexford because the company was not directly involved or accused of wrongdoing.

Two other companies bid for the project, and several of those have had legal issues, as well. ADOC’s current medical contractor Corizon, which bid for the new contract, lost its deal with New York City’s jails after city leaders launched a review that found the company did not properly perform background checks for its employees. Several of those employees had serious criminal records.

Centurion LLC — a new venture formed by Alabama’s current mental health provider, MHM Services and Centene Corp., and a separate joint venture involving Quality Correctional Health Care and the University of Alabama at Birmingham — was the third bidder on the contract.

Several of the state’s high power lobbying firms — including Fine, Geddie & Associations, which is representing Wexford Health — have been sparing back and forth over the contract.

ADOC is set to receive a 20 percent increase to its budget over the next two years if the $30 million emergency supplement to the ADOC’s funding this fiscal year and next year’s General Fund, which includes a $50 million bump, are approved by the House in the coming weeks.

Despite the new funding, the possibility remains that the federal courts won’t be satisfied with Alabama’s response to its prison ruling. If the state doesn’t adequately address the problems Thompson raised last year, the courts could order the state to spend more money or force the release of prisoners to decrease overcrowding and the burden on the health system.

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