Kan. DOC hires new prison medical provider amid COVID-19 pandemic

Officials claim the ousted medical provider was responsible for a one-week doubling of the number of infected employees and inmates at Lansing Correctional Facility


By Tim Carpenter
The Topeka Capital-Journal

TOPEKA, Kan. — The Kansas Department of Corrections is severing ties with the state prison system's medical provider amid the COVID-19 pandemic responsible for a one-week doubling of the number of infected employees and inmates at Lansing Correctional Facility.

The decision to replace Corizon Health was anticipated, but executives of the Brentwood, Tenn., company rejected allegations by Jeff Zmuda, the state correction's secretary, that Corizon was unprepared for COVID-19. Zmuda's letter complaining about Corizon's response to the pandemic was dated April 9, the same day Lansing inmates rioted, in part, due to anxiety about adequacy of health care.

Jeff Zmuda, the state correction's secretary, complained about Corizon Health's response the same day Lansing inmates rioted, in part, due to anxiety about adequacy of healthcare. (Mark Rountree/The Leavenworth Times via AP)
Jeff Zmuda, the state correction's secretary, complained about Corizon Health's response the same day Lansing inmates rioted, in part, due to anxiety about adequacy of healthcare. (Mark Rountree/The Leavenworth Times via AP)

James Hyman, chief executive officer at Corizon, said Zmuda accused the company of failing to maintain an adequate stock of personal protective equipment for health staff and delaying until April 8 issuance of procedures for testing, isolating and treating coronavirus patients.

Zmuda also claimed care at Lansing was undermined by a nursing shortage.

"It is not accurate to allege that Corizon was unprepared for the COVID pandemic," Hyman said. "Our first and foremost objective is to ensure the health and safety of the inmates and staff."

Hyman said the Department of Corrections declined to implement screening or temperature checks at the Lansing prison gate until a staff member tested positive March 31. He said Corizon urged KDOC to lock down the prison in Lansing to contain what could form into an outbreak, but state officials declined.

Hyman also said the pandemic and rioting deterred candidates from applying to "work in what is perceived to be an unsafe environment."

$554 million deal

Zmuda awarded a potential six-year contract to Centurion of Kansas, a company based in Vienna, Va., valued at $86 million in the first year and as much as $98 million in the final year.

"Providing high quality healthcare that is consistent with community standards requires a partner who understands this responsibility," Zmuda said. "In the procurement process, Centurion has demonstrated themselves to be up to the task."

The Department of Corrections reported Friday that 39 staff and 30 inmates at Lansing had tested positive for the virus, up from 16 staff and 12 inmates on April 10. The initial employee infection was confirmed March 31, while the first infection of a prisoner was disclosed April 4.

The infection of a Wichita work release inmate prompted the state to transfer 100 Wichita inmates to Lansing for isolation. There have been inmate riots in April at the Lansing and Ellsworth prisons.

In addition, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit seeking release of medically fragile inmates from overcrowded and ill-equipped state prisons during the pandemic. The case has been transferred to Leavenworth County District Court.

"When inmates who are over 50 and suffering from diabetes or Hep C are forced to stand, sleep and eat within six feet of other inmates, we are literally putting people's lives at risk," said Lauren Bonds, ACLU legal director.

The base two-year contract with Centurion starts July 1 includes a pair of two-year options, which could carry the deal to June 30, 2026. If it runs the maximum six years, the cost to the state would be $554 million for health care at eight adult facilities and the juvenile complex in Topeka. The investment covers 500 full-time staff positions related to providing 24-hour medical services.

The agreement requires Centurion to maintain national accreditation and provide for peer review of patient care. A separate contract with the University of Kansas Medical Center will provide oversight.

In Kansas, health officials Friday confirmed 84 deaths and 1,705 infections related to COVID-19. Cases have been identified in 66 of the state's 105 counties. The Kansas Department of Health and Environment has been tracking 35 clusters of infection in Kansas. The nine latest clusters to emerge have been at private companies.

ACLU on church services

Gov. Laura Kelly's executive order on religious services, one of the most controversial of the past month, limited congregational gatherings to no more than 10 people. Her order applied even if attendees adhered to fundamentals of social distancing, including staying 6 feet apart.

The Legislative Coordinating Council, a Republican-led panel called into duty whenever the House and Senate couldn't convene at the Capitol, voted to overrride the governor's executive order on church attendance. The Kansas Supreme Court issued a ruling that declared the LCC lacked jurisdiction to overturn the governor.

That led the Alliance Defending Freedom of Scottsdale, Ariz., to filed a federal lawsuit against Kelly on behalf of Baptist churches in Junction City and Dodge City. It alleges violation of constitutional rights of religious freedom and the right to expression.

In this fight, Kelly found an unlikely ally in the ACLU of Kansas.

Nadine Johnson, executive director of the Kansas chapter of the civil liberties organization, has championed the right of people of all faiths to be free from government interference in their right to worship. The constitutions of Kansas and the United States Constitutions guard freedom of assembly to practice one's faith, she said.

"No civil liberty is absolute, however, and circumstances arise where the government can justify temporary, tailored restrictions on the right to assemble and worship. The current global pandemic presents such a circumstance," she said.

The COVID-19 crisis forced the Kelly administration to balance its interest in saving lives against its obligation to respect constitutionally protected individual liberties. Without a vaccine, she said, public health experts concluded the primary method of avoiding easy transmission was through physical distancing.

She said courts across the country have consistently found the spread of communicable disease constituted a compelling government interest and upheld administrative efforts to protect communities.

"While freedom of religious assembly is one of the most sacred rights protected by our state and federal laws, one we defend zealously, the temporary limitations created by these executive orders are justifiable in light of the current health crisis," Johnson said.

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©2020 The Topeka Capital-Journal, Kan.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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