New jail health contractor subject of controversy

November 18, 2016

Sauk County inmates will receive treatment over the next two years from a jail health care company that has come under intense scrutiny.

On Tuesday, the Sauk County Board accepted a $353,000 bid to provide health care services in the Sauk County jail from Peoria, Illinois-based Advanced Correctional Healthcare.

A CBS News segment that aired in April reported that “ACH settled at least six lawsuits with families whose relatives died from preventable causes.” In a statement, the company’s CEO said CBS “misrepresented (ACH)’s mission to provide quality health care to our clients at correctional facilities across the nation.”

One of the cases highlighted in the CBS segment occurred at the nearby Rock County jail, where 39-year-old inmate Dante Wilson died in August 2015.

The nurse who attended to Wilson was an ACH employee. She gave him antacid tablets after he complained of chest pains. And when he asked for help less than an hour later, the nurse told him to “relax.” Wilson died of a heart attack.

A video included in the CBS report shows the nurse wrapping up an interview with a detective who was investigating the death. She says, “Oh yeah, we don’t want to drag it out. S--t happens.”

Like the other inmates featured in the CBS report, Wilson was incarcerated for a non-violent offense. The nurse was later fired.

Provider drops out

ACH has contracts in 17 states, providing health care services at 298 facilities, according to its website. That includes 24 Wisconsin locations.

Sauk County jail officials were forced to begin the search for a new health care provider after the facility’s current contractor, a Nashville firm called Correctional Care Solutions, sent a letter in September that terminated its contract “without cause.”

Sauk County Sheriff Chip Meister said he is aware of the concerns about the county’s new contractor, but that lawsuits are not unusual in the medical field. “Oh sure, I find stories like this concerning, but there are many health care providers that are sued,” Meister said in an email.

Indeed, the other firms that submitted bids have also been subjected to lawsuits.

ACH’s $353,000 bid was the lowest of three. Other firms that submitted proposals included the county’s current contractor, Correctional Care Solutions, with a bid of $414,000, and MEnD Correctional Care of Minnesota, with a bid of $519,000.

The board voted 29-1 in favor of the new contract with ACH. Supervisor Tom Kriegl of Baraboo cast the only no vote, saying he had read bad things about each of the contractors online.

“I hadn’t seen this particular story,” Kriegl said about the CBS report. “However I had seen many like it which is why I commented and voted as I did.”

In-house solution

Meister told board members Tuesday night that the sheriff’s department and its oversight committee investigated the possibility of contracting with a local doctor. But he said health care professionals are concerned about the financial impact that jail medical work might have on themselves and their colleagues.

“They are not interested because their malpractice insurance (cost) not only rises for them, but it rises for the other ones that work in that same facility,” Meister said.

ACH will provide 24/7 consultation regarding inmate medical needs, 104 hours per week of nursing services, expertise regarding specialized inmate populations, and malpractice insurance coverage, according to the resolution approved Tuesday. Meister said the company also will provide 4 hours of access to a doctor per week.

Company responds

CBS noted that six weeks before the death of a Kentucky inmate featured in its report, the U.S. Department of Justice sent a letter to the local jail that warned “unqualified staff are serving as gatekeepers to medical care.”

ACH responded to CBS that “staffing decisions are dictated by local jail administration.”

When asked for comment about its bid and history, ACH provided the Baraboo News Republic with a letter its CEO sent to clients after the CBS report aired. The letter took issue with CBS’s portrayal of ACH.

“In the rare event our team has made a mistake in patient care, we do the right thing by taking ownership of the error and settling the case – because it’s the right thing to do for the patient and their family,” ACH founder and CEO Dr. Norman R. Johnson stated in the letter.

Johnson used data collected by federal agencies to draw comparisons between his company’s own internal numbers. He claimed the company has experienced fewer lawsuits than the national average for inmate litigation, has won the majority of the lawsuits filed, and settles one in 10.

But some of the conclusions he reached were based on comparisons between unspecified company data for one time period and national data from a different period.

For example, Johnson claimed ACH has experienced fewer lawsuits over the last 10 years than should be expected based on federal inmate litigation data. But he based that assertion on a National Institute of Corrections survey conducted 15 years ago.

The letter also claimed 11 fewer inmates died under ACH’s care in 2015 than should have been expected based the national jail mortality rate for 2013. “This implies that our health care program saved over 11 lives last year,” Johnson concluded in his letter.

ACH declined to provide access to reports that would allow the newspaper to draw its own conclusions.

“I hope you understand that we prefer not to release internal company documents,” ACH Senior Counsel Jessica Young wrote in an email.

The letter also said federal healthcare privacy laws prevent the company from defending itself against certain allegations made in the CBS report.