State prison health care provider named in neglect suit jumps ship

Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women. Photo courtesy DOC. Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women. Photo courtesy DOC.

A lawsuit alleging that medical neglect led to suffering and death at the women’s prison in Fluvanna is poised to head to trial at the end of this year, but the state’s prison health care provider, a defendant in the suit, has thrown a wrench in the works. Tennessee-based Corizon Health, Inc. gave notice June 2 that it plans to back out of its year-old contract with the Virginia Department of Corrections (DOC), and has filed a motion in U.S. District Court in Charlottesville to halt the suit.

The DOC said in a press release that it’s now searching for a provider to replace Corizon when the company terminates its contract in early October, 120 days after giving notice. Corizon took over providing health care for Virginia inmates in May of 2013, shortly after the end date of the contract with the previous provider, Armor Correctional Health Services.

Both companies and the DOC are defendants* in the lawsuit, brought by Charlottesville’s Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC) on behalf of inmates at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women, that alleges consistent neglect of serious medical conditions like diabetes, blood clots, and cancer. Corizon was added to the suit last summer.

Plaintiffs in the suit say contractor-employed prison medical staff regularly ignored or denied prisoners’ requests for treatment and medication. More than once, the suit says, negligence resulted in an inmate’s death. Starting in 2011, one prisoner allegedly complained for a year of intense abdominal pain and rectal bleeding, but was told she was “fine,” according to the suit. When she was finally referred to a hospital, doctors determined she had Stage IV abdominal cancer. Weeks later, she was dead.

It’s not clear why Corizon is scrapping its $76.5 million deal with the state, said the LAJC’s Brenda Castaneda. The company underbid the previous contract with Armor by about $17 million, something that worried the LAJC at the time. “It’s possible they decided they couldn’t provide care for the amount they bid,” she said.

The company’s termination letter to the state indicates cost was a factor in ending its deal.

“While Corizon and the DOC have worked diligently to resolve concerns in a number of areas since the implementation of the Contract, we have not made adequate progress regarding the provision of Utilization Management services”—an industry term for the evaluation of cases to determine whether they’ll be covered by a health care plan—“and use of an alternative, more cost effective provider than Virginia Commonwealth University Health System,” Corizon CEO Woodrow A. Myers, Jr. wrote.

But Corizon may not be out of the picture altogether. The letter goes on to say that if the company and the DOC can “come to a mutual agreement regarding these issues” before October 2, Corizon would rescind its termination notice. And nothing would stop Corizon from coming back to the table with a higher dollar number in an attempt to replace itself, said Castaneda. Another possible contender, she said, is Armor, the same contractor that Corizon underbid last year.

All the turnover isn’t good for health care in the prison system, she said. DOC said in its press release that “Corizon employees working in DOC facilities may remain in place following the transition to a new provider if they so choose,” but Castaneda said the recent transitions she’s seen have not been smooth. Providers have had to reapply for their jobs, ended up with less pay, and lost their vacation days. There was new paperwork to fill out, and day-to-day operations slowed.

When Corizon took over last year, “they got really behind on scheduling care visits,” Castaneda said. “It took them a long time to get doctors in.”

As for the motion to stay, “it’s definitely interesting timing,” she said. The trial was scheduled for December 1, and the parties are wrapping up the discovery phase. But Corizon is now asking for a stay, claiming any future contractor will be a necessary party in the suit, since the plaintiffs are seeking “complete relief”—essentially, a court order saying providers have to give better care. 

“Corizon is proud of the quality care its medical professionals provide to inmates in the Virginia Department of Corrections, and continues working in partnership with the DOC to meet patient needs,” Corizon spokesperson Susan Morgenstern said in an e-mail. “Contract discussions with the DOC are not related to the legal matter you referenced.”

Regardless of which company gets tapped to replace Corizon, it’s up to the state to provide adequate care for the people it imprisons, said Castaneda—that’s what the suit is all about.

“No matter who you get in…it’s the state that’s responsible for monitoring the contractor and making sure the care is sufficient,” she said. “The state can’t just bid out to the lowest bidder and say ‘We paid for it.’”

*Initially, this story incorrectly stated the contractors and the DOC were plaintiffs.