Maryland awards big contract for inmate health care as prior contractor sues

Maryland officials on Wednesday approved a $680 million contract for a private company to provide medical care to state inmates, over the objection of the prior contractor who has already lodged appeals and a lawsuit.

Corizon Correctional Health Care was awarded the five-year contract by the state’s Board of Public Works on Wednesday morning.

“We are ready to go,” Steve Rector, CEO of the Tennessee-based company, said after the vote.

The selection of Corizon came over the objections of the company that previously had the state contract, Wexford Health Sources.

Wexford has provided medical care for about 22,000 inmates since 2012 on a contract that expires at the end of this month.

Wexford lost out to Corizon when the contract was sent out for new bids.

Corizon earned the highest technical score and offered the lowest price of the three bidders, and was selected for the contract in September 2017. Wexford was ranked third on technical merits and second on price.

Wexford filed multiple appeals to a little-known state panel called the Board of Contract Appeals, which upheld the award to Corizon in August. Wexford has since appealed that decision with a lawsuit in Baltimore City Circuit Court.

Bruce Bereano, a lobbyist representing Wexford, told members of the Board of Public Works that the company didn’t get a fair review by the appeals board. He said his client has been unfairly blamed for problems in the state’s prisons that really are the state’s fault.

“We did not have a full hearing, a fair hearing before the Board of Contract Appeals,” Bereano said.

Bereano suggested Wexford’s workers could stay on the job while the court case played out.

Stuart Nathan, the lawyer for the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said Wexford’s claim of unfairness is “patently false.”

Nathan told board members that Corizon is the best choice. “Corizon has demonstrated the ability to perform,” he said.

Members of the Board of Public Works — Gov. Larry Hogan, Comptroller Peter Franchot and Treasurer Nancy Kopp — appeared unmoved by Bereano’s argument and voted unanimously to approve the contract with Corizon.

“These guys won a bid a long time ago,” said Hogan, a Republican. “You had five opportunities to appeal at the board of appeals, all of which you lost.”

Board members also noted that the current contract for inmate health care runs out on Dec. 31, so the state needs to have a contract in place.

The Supreme Court has ruled that prisoners have a constitutional right to adequate medical attention.

Additionally, Maryland is subject to legal requirements about its medical care for inmates stemming from a settlement in a long-running lawsuit over prison conditions known as the Duvall case.

In a recent filing in the Duvall case, state officials said that Wexford has done a poor job collecting data needed for required twice-yearly reports, is “critically short of care providers and clerical staff” and left high-ranking positions open, including nursing directors. Wexford replaced its entire leadership team in 2017.

Corizon officials assured board members that they would do a better job.

“Wexford’s performance simply has not been up to snuff. Corizon is ready to go,” said Phil Andrews, an attorney representing Corizon.

David Fathi, director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, said he isn’t so sure that Corizon would be any better than Wexford. Having any private, for-profit company responsible for inmate health care can lead to a desire to cut corners to make more profits, he said.

He said Corizon has had a “horrific” record in other states, noting it has had to make multi-million-dollar payouts to relatives of people who died in prison.

“Privatized health care in prisons and jails has almost always been a disaster,” Fathi said.

Asked to respond to the ACLU’s criticism, Corizon spokeswoman Martha Harbin issued a statement saying: “We have a record of meeting and exceeding national standards for correctional healthcare and are confident in our ability to provide quality care to those incarcerated in Maryland prisons.”

The ACLU, which represents inmates in the Duvall lawsuit, wants the state to come up with a specific plan for how it will improve inmate health care. If the state won’t voluntarily agree to such a plan, Fathi said the ACLU will ask a judge to order one.

The inmate medical contract was among dozens of contracts and other matters handled by the Board of Public Works in a four-hour meeting, its last of the year.

The board also approved a five-year, $90 million contract for a company to help manage the process for widening Interstate 270 and the Capital Beltway with toll lanes that would be operated by a private vendor.

The contractor, Maryland Traffic Relief Partners, will help the state with legal, outreach and design aspects of the project.

The board is expected to vote early next year on whether to go forward with the highway project as a public-private partnership. The private partner has not yet been selected.

The highway project has been controversial in Montgomery County, with some local leaders and residents objecting to the idea of expanding the highways and others resistant to involving a private company in operating the lanes and collecting the tolls.

pwood@baltsun.com

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