Pa. prison medical provider approved despite scathing probe, objections

An investigation found Wellpath was accused of contributing to more than 70 deaths at other prisons

By Jeff Horvath
The Times-Tribune

LACKAWANNA COUNTY, Pa. — Lackawanna County's majority commissioners approved a new inmate medical provider for the county prison over Commissioner Chris Chermak's objections.

With a 2-1 vote Wednesday, commissioners Jerry Notarianni and Debi Domenick awarded a three-year contract for inmate medical services to Wellpath pending the solicitor's review of the pact. On Jan. 15, Wellpath will replace Moosic-based Correctional Care Inc., the county's inmate medical provider since 2004.

Chermak unsuccessfully motioned for commissioners to table the vote pending further scrutiny of information he said raises questions about the quality of care rendered by Wellpath. Chermak referenced The Times-Tribune's recent reporting on a scathing 2019 CNN investigation that found Correct Care Solutions, now Wellpath, was accused in lawsuits of contributing to more than 70 deaths at other prisons.

Correct Care Solutions became Wellpath in 2018, after it was acquired by H.I.G. Capital, a multibillion-dollar private equity firm, and combined with a California company, Correctional Medical Group Companies. CNN reviewed lawsuits filed between 2014 and 2018.

In a statement, Wellpath said the situations described in the CNN report don't represent a pattern of care.

Chermak also noted the family of Shaheen Mackey — a former inmate at the Luzerne County Correctional Facility who died in June 2018, after an intense struggle with corrections officers there — sued Correct Care Solutions, Wellpath and Luzerne County.

Luzerne County Council approved a $3 million settlement in June in a civil rights lawsuit with Mackey's estate. The portion of the lawsuit involving the medical providers is still pending.

He also referred to a 2018 U.S. Department of Justice investigation that found there was "reasonable cause to believe" the Hampton Roads Regional Jail in Portsmouth, Virginia failed to provide "constitutionally adequate medical and mental health care to prisoners."

Correct Care Solutions provided medical and mental health services at the Virginia jail during the period of the Justice Department probe.

"I believe there is enough here to table this until we can do some further investigation," Chermak said. "I don't feel comfortable making a decision right now with these things hanging in front of me. ... I don't need another issue at the prison and I want to make sure that these folks at the prison are taken care of to the best of our ability here."

Domenick, who repeatedly has criticized the care rendered by the county's current medical provider as substandard, argued "the majority of what Chris said is hearsay that can't be substantiated."

She also differentiated between Correct Care Solutions and Wellpath, arguing the latter is "no longer associated" with the former following the 2018 acquisition and merger. Wellpath is under new management and "revamped their entire operation," she said.

Last week, Domenick argued a committee of officials reviewed proposals submitted by the four firms seeking the prison medical contract and noted the county prison board unanimously recommended Wellpath. The firm received positive reviews from officials in Luzerne County, where it most recently provided inmate medical services since late June.

"This is the best move for the county, best move for the residents, best move for the inmates," she said of the Wellpath contract, which will run through Jan. 14, 2024.

Based on its proposal, Wellpath's services would cost the county about an estimated $9.88 million over the next three years. County Chief Financial Officer Tom Durkin noted last month the actual cost of medical services could exceed or come in lower than the proposal suggests.

Wellpath's cost estimate wasn't the cheapest of the four proposals the county received, but it was about $2.2 million cheaper than Correctional Care's proposal, according to a county breakdown.

Commissioners received an emailed public comment Wednesday inquiring if any of their direct family members work or worked for Wellpath, Correct Care Solutions or Correctional Care. Notarianni and Chermak said no and Domenick did not answer, but her sister, Deann Domenick, did work briefly for Correctional Care in 2015.

Commissioner Domenick acknowledged late last week that her sister was employed by Correctional Care for "about two or three weeks," but denied any personal motive for her past criticism of the firm's work at the county jail.

"I'm not saying anything on a personal level," she said of Correctional Care. "I'm saying based on my experience as an attorney who represents people and who knows people who have been incarcerated in that facility, that the care is not up to snuff."

Attempts to reach Dr. Edward Zaloga, Correctional Care's president and chief medical officer, were unsuccessful Wednesday.


(c)2020 The Times-Tribune (Scranton, Pa.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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