Vermont Department of Corrections signs contract with new health service provider

The Vermont Department of Corrections announced on Tuesday a new three-year contract with Wellpath LLC to manage health services in state prisons.

The department’s contract with current vendor, VitalCore Health Strategies, ends in June, and the company has not made a bid for the new one.

The state previously contracted with Wellpath from 2010 to 2015, when it operated as Correct Care Solutions. The new contract begins July 1.

In a press release on Tuesday, Nicholas Deml, the state’s commissioner of corrections, highlighted the increasingly difficult and important role health services play in Vermont prisons.

“The COVID-19 pandemic, compounded by the increase in substance use disorders and mental health issues, has significantly altered the health needs of our prison population,” he said in the communicated. “We are grateful to partner with a health care provider who will deliver the highest level of care in this new reality, with a renewed focus on mental health, evidence-based practices, contemporary health research and holistic care. »

Deml was unavailable for an interview on Wednesday.

According to the release, Wellpath will provide “medical, mental health, addictions, dental, vision, onsite and offsite specialty, pharmacy, care coordination and emergency services.” A Nashville-based company, Wellpath claims to serve 300,000 patients a day and is owned by private equity firm HIG Capital.

Two companies bid on the health services contract, according to Haley Sommer, director of communications for the Department of Corrections. She declined to say which other company had made a bid because the contract with Wellpath has not yet been signed.

For the same reason, Sommer also declined to specify the annual cost of Wellpath’s contract with the state, but said it was a “significant increase” over the current contract with VitalCore, which had a maximum budget in its final year of over $22.1 million. .

VitalCore signed its three-year contract in 2020, and therefore costs associated with Covid-19 were not factored into the deal, Sommer said. Covid-19 “has dramatically changed our healthcare needs and protocols, which has significantly affected costs,” she said.

The corrections department provides a 90-day transition period for changing health care providers, Sommer said.

The change comes at a time when increased numbers of Vermonters have died in state prisons or in correctional custody. Since January 2022, 10 people who were held at the Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield have died, according to state police and corrections reports.

In 2022, a total of nine people died in correctional custody, including six at Springfield Jail. On average, three people per year died in Vermont prisons from 2017 to 2021.

The private companies that provide health care in Vermont prisons have for years drawn attention to their work.

In late 2019, an incarcerated person who complained of not being able to breathe died in custody at the Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport. Several months later, Jim Baker, the acting commissioner of corrections, criticized then health service provider Centurion Managed Care for the circumstances surrounding the man’s death.

Dropping Centurion, the state then began a three-year contract with VitalCore for health care in its prisons, costing about $20 million a year at the time.

During its previous stint as a Vermont prison healthcare service provider, Wellpath — then Correct Care Solutions — came under fire from the Human Rights Defense Center and the ACLU-VT after the company refused to provide records in connection with a public records law request. The Vermont Supreme Court ruled against Wellpath, arguing that private contractors acting as “instruments” of the state have an obligation to provide records to the public.

James Lyall, executive director of the ACLU-VT, said transparency has been a “longstanding concern” not only with Wellpath, but also with other private medical service providers.

Lyall also pointed to the problems inherent in a for-profit company that runs medical services in Vermont prisons.

These companies have a “built-in incentive to minimize costs and maximize profits,” he said, which “has repeatedly resulted in tragedies in Vermont and across the country.”

“This is how Vermont chooses to provide health care in its prisons,” he said.

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