Florida prison healthcare providers sued hundreds of times

By Dan Christensen

The Florida Department of Corrections awarded a five-year, $1.2 billion contract to provide medical care for thousands of state prisoners in North and Central Florida to a Tennessee company that was sued 660 times for malpractice in the past five years.

Nearly half of those cases remain open. Of those that are closed, 91 — one in four — ended with confidential settlements that Corizon declined to discuss. The company, Corizon, began work in August providing care at 41 correctional facilities.

A second contractor, Pittsburgh-based Wexford Health Sources, signed a five-year, $240 million contract in December to provide medical services to state inmates in nine institutions in South Florida.

Wexford was hit with 1,092 malpractice claims — suits, notices of intent to sue and letters from aggrieved inmates from Jan. 1, 2008, through 2012. Records say Wexford settled 34 of 610 closed matters for a total of $5.4 million, as well as another case that ended in a $270,000 jury verdict against the company.

The Department of Corrections, headed by Secretary Michael D. Crews, hired Corizon and Wexford to lead Florida toward millions of dollars in savings promised by the massive privatization of inmate healthcare enacted by Gov. Rick Scott and the Republican-controlled Legislature.

Along the way, however, the corrections department never asked the corporations bidding for those lucrative jobs to disclose their litigation histories.

Neither Crews nor Dr. Olugbenga Ogunsanwo, the assistant secretary for medical and health services, agreed to be interviewed for this story. Corrections spokeswoman Misty Cash, however, called the state’s contracting process “comprehensive.”

“The selection of Wexford and Corizon was transparent,” she said.

Government agencies elsewhere in Florida typically require corporate bidders to provide litigation histories in order to assess the quality and reliability of their services, as well as their ability to limit potential liability. obtained the litigation records from the Broward Sheriff’s Office using Florida’s public records laws.

BSO obtained them from Corizon and Wexford during their unsuccessful bids this summer to provide healthcare services for inmates at the Broward County Jail. Each company complied, to varying degrees.

Neither Corizonnor Wexford would comment for this article.

While Corizon told BSO it had been sued 660 times, it did not provide the requested list of cases.

One example, however, can be found in the court file of 24-year-old Brett Fields.

Fields was sent to the Lee County Jail on July 6, 2007, after being convicted of two misdemeanors. He was healthy, except for a bump “about half the size of a tennis ball” on his left arm — the result of a spider bite, the court records say.

On Aug. 6, after a month of sporadic, ineffective and “lax” treatment by Corizon staff, Fields “felt his back go sore and numb.” The next day, his legs began to twitch uncontrollably, with the pain becoming unbearable after midnight on Aug. 8, records say.

Fields could no longer walk by the time he saw a physician’s assistant about 9 a.m. Fields was given Tylenol and returned to his cell.

Early on Aug. 9, Fields “felt his intestines escaping from his rectum.” Fellow inmates begged Corizon’s staff to take him to the hospital. Instead, nurse Bettie Joyce Allen “obtained some K-Y Jelly, and pushed the intestines back in,” the records say. Hours later, at a local hospital, doctors found an abscess compressing his spine.

A jury awarded Fields $1.2 million in 2011 after finding Corizon solely responsible for what happened.

In addition to the lawsuits and claims filed against them, Corizon and Wexford both have faced withering official criticism about the delivery of care to inmates.

Idaho: In 2011, the Associated Press reported that Corizon was fined $382,000 by the state “for failing to meet some of the most basic healthcare requirements outlined by the state.”

• Pennsylvania: Corizon paid a $1.85 million fine to Philadelphia after investigators determined the company had used a front company as a subcontractor to meet city requirements for minority-owned vendors.

• Maine: In 2011, a state agency review of Corizon’s operations there found that the company maintained medical records poorly and had failed to fulfill contract obligations.

• Mississippi: In December 2007, a joint legislative committee criticized Wexford and the state’s Department of Corrections for failing to ensure that all inmates received timely access to quality medical care.

• Arizona: Wexford and the state’s corrections department agreed in January to terminate Wexford’s medical services contract in the wake of accusations the company improperly dispensed medicine to inmates and wasted state resources, according to the Arizona Republic.

Florida has had its own problems with the two companies.

In 2006, Corizon, then known as Prison Health Services, backed out of a 10-year state prison healthcare contract saying it wasn’t making enough money. The company had won the contract only months before.

In 2004, Florida legislative auditors called Wexford’s medical care “problematic,” according to the Miami Herald. In 2002, the newspaper reported that the Florida Correctional Medical Authority had reprimanded Wexford the year before for poor medical care following the deaths of two inmates.

Florida let bygones be bygones when it hired Corizon and Wexford to help achieve the 7 percent in cost savings mandated for privatization by the legislature.

Florida Bulldog is a not-for-profit news organization created to provide investigative reporting in the public interest. Contributions are tax-deductible.