Medical probation: The county jail tests a promising care provider

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Allegheny County needed to change its health care provider for inmates in its jail.

A nonprofit that was launched to do the job 13 years ago was failing. There were repeated allegations of substandard care. For seven years, the facility had one of the highest mortality rates among the nation's largest jails, and the second-highest suicide rate. Costs were escalating and the amount that Allegheny Correctional Health Services could bill to county taxpayers was not capped.

County officials this week made a change that is certain to address the cost problem. The goal and the hope is that improved inmate care will be part of the bargain.

It is too soon to make that determination, but County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and his top managers are optimistic about Corizon, a national prison health care provider that's been granted a two-year contract capped at $11.5 million in the first year. They are particularly enthusiastic about a promise by Corizon -- the Tennessee-based company already has contracts at 400 facilities in 29 states -- to develop an electronic medical records system for the jail.

County Manager William McKain said in addition to automating records, the jail could be taking better advantage of technology, such as when specialists conduct assessments remotely rather than by having inmates transported to doctors' offices for evaluation. If the trips for medical treatment can be reduced, the trickle-down effect will be lower overtime expenses associated with the sheriff's deputies who must move and guard inmates away from the jail.

There is a caution. Corizon has had some difficulties in other cities, including hundreds of lawsuits filed against the firm since 2010 and a $1.85 million damage award it paid last year in Philadelphia for using a sham company to skirt minority-hiring requirements.

County officials must pay careful attention to Corizon's performance both financially and medically. Providing appropriate medical services for inmates isn't just the county's responsibility and it isn't just good for inmates. If done correctly, providing comprehensive treatment for alcohol and drug addictions, which afflict a vast majority of inmates, can mean the individuals will be better prepared to function as law-abiding citizens when they are released. And that's good for the whole community.

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