Lawsuits claim inmates still getting poor health care

2018-01-29 | The Santa Fe New Mexican

Jan. 29--David Vigil was booked in the state prison in Los Lunas in April with a long history of medical disorders -- epilepsy, hepatitis C, depression, hypertension, diabetes, strokes and substance abuse.

Thin and frail, Vigil lost 15 pounds in just a week at the Central New Mexico Correctional Facility in Los Lunas, according to a lawsuit filed on behalf of his estate. His back was tender, and he walked slowly, with a stiff gait. When he made a sick call request "for stronger pain medications due to neck and back pain," a prison psychiatrist gave him three doses of Narcan, a drug used as an emergency treatment for opioid overdoses.

Vigil went into cardiac arrest, the complaint says. He was transferred to the University of New Mexico Hospital, where medical staff diagnosed him with pneumonia and other untreated infections and discovered an abscess that spanned Vigil's entire spine, narrowing airways in his throat.

Weeks later, he died in hospice care, according to the lawsuit.

Filed earlier this month in the state District Court in Santa Fe, the lawsuit against Centurion Correctional Healthcare of New Mexico LLC is one of at least 17 cases the private prison medical provider has faced since it began contracting with the state in June 2016.

The number of lawsuits filed against Centurion in the first 20 months of its four-year contract marks a decline from years past, when private, for-profit companies lost their contracts to provide prison medical services.

The state Department of Corrections awarded its prison medical contract to Centurion after deciding not to renew a contract with the company's predecessor, Corizon Health Inc. The state's selection of Centurion followed a six-month investigation by The New Mexican, published in April 2016, that revealed deep-rooted problems with Corizon's care of inmates and the state's lax oversight of Corizon.

Corizon faced more than 150 lawsuits by some 200 inmates in New Mexico in nine years. In just the four-year stretch between 2012 -- when the state renewed the company's contract -- and 2015, Corizon was sued by 138 inmates.

Wexford Health Sources, which had the state's prison medical contract between 2004 and 2007, faced lawsuits by 53 inmates during that term, leading the state to essentially fire the company.

State officials promised stricter oversight of Centurion. According to lawsuits, however, some inmates continued to see substandard care.

Two complaints against Centurion have been settled on undisclosed terms. State and federal judges have ordered the dismissal of five of the suits, frequently on procedural grounds, such as improper jurisdiction, as prisoners struggle to navigate the law with handwritten complaints mailed from jail.

Ten cases against Centurion are pending, including Vigil's lawsuit. Among them are the following:

--An inmate at the Central New Mexico Correctional Facility in Los Lunas claims he was given the wrong medications for a seizure disorder and fractured his hand during a fall in one blackout. Centurion has denied the allegations.

--An inmate at the Northwestern New Mexico Correctional Facility in Grants wrote in a handwritten complaint that "the nursing staff acts like they are doctors instead of doing their jobs. I am diabetic; I have asthma; I have arthritis, I need treatment." He said medical staff shows "malicious and callous indifference toward inmates." No defendants have issued responses to the case, which appears to have stalled because mail to the inmate has been returned.

--An inmate at the Otero County Prison Facility says in a handwritten complaint that he suffers from anal discharges, which have gone untreated by prison medical staff, who also have refused to schedule an off-site surgery, even after a specialist in El Paseo diagnosed him with anal fistula and fissure, and said the conditions could lead to death if untreated. A contract nurse said in a response to the complaint that the inmate received the procedure two months after it was recommended.

--An inmate at the Southern New Mexico Correctional Facility in Doña Ana County filed a lawsuit claiming treatment for a variety of conditions was ignored or delayed under the previous provider, Corizon. The inmate's hope that medical care would improve under Centurion soon faded, the complaint says; Centurion employees sent false medical information about the inmate to a surgeon who was supposed to help treat his abdominal distention, according to the lawsuit. The surgeon would not operate on the inmate because he feared the man would "bleed to death," based on the false information, the complaint says. The inmate has been diagnosed with eight serious health complications, some life-threatening, that have not been resolved under Centurion, according to the complaint. The defendants have denied the allegations.

--In a wrongful-death lawsuit filed in state District Court against Corizon, Centurion and the Corrections Department, the estate of a deceased female inmate says she died in the summer of 2016 of septicemia, or blood poisoning, at the age of 42. Centurion and Corizon issued responses denying the allegations.

--An inmate at the New Mexico Correctional Facility in Clayton sued Centurion and two nurses in a complaint saying he was given no treatment for a stroke for two and a half weeks. The defendants submitted initial answers to the suit denying the allegations.

--One inmate at the Southern New Mexico Correctional Facility sued Centurion, nursing staff and a doctor in a handwritten complaint filed in state District Court in Doña Ana County, alleging internal stomach bleeding, rectal bleeding and other symptoms have gone untreated. Centurion and the doctor have denied the allegations in their initial responses.

--A former inmate of Western New Mexico Correctional Facility in Grants sued Corizon, Centurion and a certified nurse practitioner in state District Court alleging a wrist injury went untreated for a year. The injury later required surgery, the complaint says, but the man was not allowed physical therapy after the surgery, resulting in "permanent disability and severe and constant pain to his wrist that he will have for the rest of his life." Centurion and Corizon have denied the allegations in initial responses.

Centurion is a joint venture between St. Louis-based Centene Corp., a Fortune 500 company, and Virginia-based MHM Services Inc. Michael Rivers, a vice president of MHM who oversees the New Mexico prison contract, did not return requests for comment on the lawsuits.

S.U. Mahesh, spokesman for the Corrections Department, said in an email that the agency doesn't keep track of lawsuits filed against Centurion. Even if the agency is named as a defendant in a case regarding inmate care, he said, Centurion is responsible for paying the costs of litigation.

The department has, however, penalized the company for falling below required staffing levels.

Mahesh said the agency "assessed Centurion $1.8 million in penalties on basis of vacancies not filled by Centurion."

Contact Justin Horwath at 505-986-3017 or jhorwath@sfnewmexican.com.