Jailhouse talk : The county must ensure proper inmate care

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When it comes to health care, the cure should not be worse than the disease. But that’s the fear raised by recent events at the Allegheny County Jail.

In September, the county replaced an ineffective nonprofit that had been providing the care with a private company, Corizon Health Inc., which has a spotty, 35-year history in the business. In exchange for a two-year deal, Corizon promised to update the jail’s record system, produce efficiencies and improve the quality of care.

In the past two months, however, Corizon has failed to fulfill a basic component of care — getting medication to inmates on time. Failing to administer doses on a strict schedule can be critical. Despite that urgency, emails from jail staff to Corizon officials, obtained by the Post-Gazette’s Rich Lord through right-to-know requests, provide examples of deliveries that didn’t happen on time.

On Nov. 16, the jail’s longtime director of nursing abruptly quit, following resignations of other employees soon after Corizon took over. A day later, Deputy Warden Monica Long said in an email that medication had not been delivered to a majority of the jail’s inmates on Nov. 17 and pointing to another problem: “Staffing is at a crisis.”

When Corizon’s vice president for operations, who was asked about the situation last week, said he had no knowledge of the problems, it suggested an organization out of touch with conditions at the jail. County manager William D. McKain said that’s not the case.

He said county and company officials have been meeting weekly to iron out staffing issues, and he is confident that conditions will improve. He said Corizon is on notice that its 90-day honeymoon is over and that “We can’t tolerate people not getting their medication.”

Let’s hope so. County residents are paying Corizon $11.5 million for its first year of service, and providing health care to jail inmates is a basic function of county government. Even before the county hired Corizon, the caution flag was up on the company. Hundreds of lawsuits were filed against the firm since 2010 and the company paid a $1.85 million damage award in Philadelphia for sidestepping minority-hiring requirements.

County officials must make sure Corizon delivers the higher standard of care that it promised.

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