Let there be rejoicing in the streets, for lo, the Vermont prison system has a new health care contractor!
Even better, they already know their way around the place. The new provider is Wellpath, a private equity-owned firm whose name just screams “Corporation Pretending to Care.” Under its former monicker Correct Care Solutions, it held Vermont’s prison health care contract from 2010 to 2015.
None of this is heartening, not the private equity ownership, not the trying-too-hard name, not the return engagement, not the recent rebranding, not the fact that it was one of only two bidders for the contract.
But let us not rush to judgment. Maybe Wellpath is different from all the others. Maybe it does business honorably and with the best of intentions. Wait, I know, let’s DuckDuckGo “Wellpath scandal” and see if we get any — oh dear.
Wellpath Founder and CEO Pleads Guilty to Federal Bribery Charges
Yep, that’s the first hit. It’s from March 2022, when former CorrectCare CEO Gerald “jerry” Boyle faced up to five years in the slammer for bribing a Virginia sheriff over a period of 12 years in exchange for the county’s jail health care contract. (Shortly after htat article was posted, Boyle was sentenced to three years in prison, a substantial penalty for a purely white-collar crime by a top corporate executive.)
But hey, after Boyle was indicted his former company thoroughly distanced itself from him, so it’s all good, right?
Boyle’s case may be an outlier, but this is an industry rife with incentives for abuse. Wellpath is one of its biggest and most experienced players. I’m not sure which I have less confidence in: Wellpath’s dedication to its duties, or the Vermont Department of Corrections’ ability to perform effective oversight of the deal.
Prison systems turn to private contractors to gain a measure of cost control. The private firms give that assurance by accepting a per diem contract that gives the provider every incentive to cut corners.
And they do. From Prison Legal News:
“If they provide NO services, they get to keep all that money,” noted Yolanda Huang, a civil rights attorney who is also a member of the National Lawyers Guild. “[S]o they have every incentive not to provide anything over and above, or extra.”
And government officials have every incentive to look the other way as long as the contractor keeps costs (and body counts) under control.
The Boyle scandal wasn’t Wellpath’s first rodeo. According to the Prison Legal News, “The company has been the subject of more than 70 wrongful death lawsuits and 1,395 federal lawsuits in over 120 locations in 32 states.” And to judge from media reports, Wellpath’s legal woes seem to be endemic to the industry as a whole.
A massive CNN investigation found that “amid a focus on ‘cost containment’ and massive corporate growth, [Wellpath] has provided substandard care that has led to deaths and other serious outcomes that could have been avoided.” And…
Across the country, the same themes have been found: doctors and nurses have failed to diagnose and monitor life-threatening illnesses and chronic diseases. [Corporate] employees have denied urgent emergency room transfers. They have failed to spot or treat serious psychiatric disorders and have allowed common infections and conditions to become fatal.
In 2021 the U.S. Justice Department concluded that Wellpath had failed to provide “constitutionally adequate” medical and mental health care in the San Luis Obispo, California county jail. Also in 2021, Wellpath paid $4.5 million to settle a wrongful death lawsuit over a mentally ill teenager who died in custody at a county jail in Washington state. The day before his death, the teen had gone four days without food or water while corporate providers looked on.
In Alaska, state officials made a big deal of signing Wellpath to provide services for a troubled state psychiatric hospital. But the deal was quietly killed 18 months later for reasons that remain unclear.
In Broward County, Florida, Wellpath got in trouble for providing woefully inadequate Covid-19 control procedures like, um, having inmates scrub their cells “with ‘sanitizers’ made from soap mixed with Diet Coke” and failing to enact adequate isolation protocols.
Here’s a good one. While testifying in a Michigan lawsuit over its mental health medication policies, a Wellcare executive admitted that the doctor who decided to withhold medication from a detainee also worked for a clinic “specializing in weight loss and medical and aesthetic skin procedures.” I guess that qualifies you to make psychiatric diagnoses?
Finally, right back here in Vermont, Wellpath waged a six-year legal battle to try to avoid disclosing public records of its performance. The company lost the case way back in [checks notes] 2021, but let’s not dwell on the distant past.
This is the outfit our state has chosen to supply health care to a literally captive audience. Not that we had a lot of choice in the matter; aggressive corporate consolidation moves have left very few players at the table. As noted above, Vermont received only two bids for its prison health care contract.
There is evidence aplenty that this business is rotten to the core. Standard operating procedure appears to involve cutting costs as deeply as possible as long as the deaths, lawsuits and scandals don’t pile up too high. It doesn’t inspire confidence that Vermont’s inmates will get the quality of care they need or deserve.
Geez John, you almost act as if you’re surprised at this news? Why? It is simply business as usual for Vermont and for vermonters. Vermont eats its own. A society is judged by how it treats its most marginalized citizens. Vermont fails on all accounts, and always has..
“There is evidence aplenty that this business is rotten to the core.”
Just like the rest of America: “Rotten to the core.”