Quality of private contractor's health care focus of New York jail oversight hearing

New York City lawmakers are taking a hard look at the quality of health care inmates receive at the Rikers Island jail complex and whether the city should renew a $126.6 million contract with a private health provider.

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Tuesday's City Council oversight hearing follows a report by The Associated Press last year that raised serious questions about the medical care inmates received in at least 15 deaths. Those cases included inmates who were denied medication, improperly assessed or not treated in a timely manner.

Some lawmakers are questioning whether the Brentwood, Tennessee-based Corizon Health Inc., has performed well enough to have its three-year contract renewed when it expires Dec. 31.

"The most recent history surrounding Corizon in the past few years at Rikers is beyond troubling," said City Councilman Corey Johnson, chair of the council's health committee. "And if you look at Corizon's record around the country it raises more red flags."

Contract evaluations obtained by the AP show that officials downgraded Corizon's performance from "good" in 2012 to "fair" in 2013 citing inconsistent leadership in mental observation units. The downgrade followed the September 2013 death of Bradley Ballard, a mentally ill, diabetic inmate locked alone in his cell for six days without medication. A state oversight panel called his care "so incompetent and inadequate as to shock the conscience."

A spokesman for Corizon, the nation's largest private provider of correctional health care which is responsible for 345,000 inmates in 27 states, said providing quality health care to a difficult population was a company priority.

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"As an organization committed to continuous improvement, we look forward to speaking to the New York City Council," said Andrew Moyer.

The treatment of inmates at Rikers has come under increased scrutiny in the past year since the AP first revealed the deaths of Ballard and Jerome Murdough, another mentally ill inmate who died after he was locked alone in a jail cell that sweltered to more than 100 degrees because of a malfunctioning heating system.

An October report by the AP, based on hundreds of investigative documents, found that treatment, or lack of it, was cited as a factor in at least 15 deaths filed away as "medical" since 2009, including that of a 32-year-old man who died of a bacterial infection in his stomach and intestines after days of bloody stools. He received treatment only after fellow inmates staged a protest.

Officials have said Mayor Bill de Blasio is conducting a comprehensive review of the Corizon contract but hasn't yet made a decision about its future.

Inmate care is notoriously difficult to provide, experts say, in large part because incarcerated people come into custody with health problems such as addictions and hepatitis C at rates that far surpass levels seen in the community.

In New York, care is further complicated by how it is provided. While the city charter gives the Department of Correction control of the nearly 11,000 daily inmates, it also tasks the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene with providing inmate care.

Former jail health officials and advocates say tension between the two agencies, one focused on security and the other on health care, can be traced to the root of many jail problems, including deaths.

Spokesmen for the health and correction departments say officials are committed to improving inmate health care.