In a move leaders hope will put an end to questions of quality, Allegheny County will outsource medical treatment of jail inmates to a for-profit company that promises to save taxpayers $1 million a year, despite a spotty record among industry watchdogs.
County officials announced Tuesday their plan to hire Corizon, a national prison health care provider that already services more than 400 facilities across 29 states. The Tennessee-based company will replace Allegheny Correctional Health Services, a local nonprofit that handled the prison infirmary for more than a decade.
In doing so, county Executive Rich Fitzgerald hopes to cut costs and clear up complaints of inadequate care that have swirled around ACHS.
"We're going to save over $1 million a year in direct costs," he said. "We think the care itself will be better."
The deal, which was approved Tuesday by county manager William McKain, will cap the county's first-year commitment at $11.5 million, with 4.25 percent annual increases possible in later years. Corizon essentially will be barred from overcharging the county as opposed to ACHS, which did not operate under a cap.
A committee chose the contractor from a field of six applicants. Some existing employees may be rehired, Mr. Fitzgerald said.
His staff is particularly excited by Corizon's promise to digitize health records, a step up from the current paper-in-folders system. They hope this and other improvements will reduce unnecessary trips to area hospitals, a common complaint under the previous infirmary administration.
That's good news for Allegheny County Sheriff William Mullen, who has complained that sending deputies to guard prisoners during hospital stays has doubled his overtime costs. His deputies have gotten used to "frequent flyers" and outlandish cases -- including one female inmate hospitalized for morning sickness but found to not be pregnant.
"If people can be treated and kept in the infirmary that's in the jail, that would be less of a burden on us and our budget," he said.
But hiring a private company to do a public job comes with risks, and Corizon has drawn criticism from watchdogs. In 2005, The New York Times ran a lengthy investigative story on the company's predecessor, detailing allegations of neglect and profiteering.
A subsequent merger and re-branding as Corizon has done little to stem the tide of federal lawsuits, which total more than 600 since 2010.
"Corizon has a bad reputation among people who are advocates for prisoners' rights," said Margaret Winter, associate director of the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union. "Of course, the other major for-profit private medical contractors also have a bad reputation. The reality is that there are horrors that are committed daily under these private contractors."
Corizon also has taken flak in Philadelphia, where it manages the city's prison health system. In 2012, it agreed to pay $1.85 million after using a sham company to skirt the city's minority-owned business requirements, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Allegheny County President Judge Donna Jo McDaniel, who served on the selection committee, says she investigated Corizon's background and was satisfied with its reputation, lawsuits or not.
"Most people have been sued. I've been sued 11 times in the last couple years," she said. "We did look into it and were satisfied that it wasn't anything that would cause us to hesitate."