By EMERSON WIGAND
Capital News Service
LANSING — Michigan’s prison inmates have a new health care provider, as a $590 million contract with ties to a controversial company began this month.
The contract is with Grand Prairie Healthcare Services, a medical practice owned by Dr. Dean Rieger of Nashville, Tennessee. Grand Prairie also works in partnership with a Nashville-based health care company, Wellpath.
According to Rieger’s description of Grand Prairie’s partnership with Wellpath, his practice will be the sole provider of medical care to the state’s incarcerated people. Wellpath will provide nonclinical support, such as human resources, finance and legal services.
The companies work together in 18 states, Judy Lilley, Wellpath’s vice president corporate communications, wrote in an email. This includes providing care for more than 10,000 inmates across Michigan’s county jails.
This switch for Michigan’s state prisons will generate savings of up to 20% compared to the current provider, Corizon, Lilley said. Grand Prairie and Wellpath share a commitment to “quality, efficient and effective care,” she said.
The Grand Prairie contract scored the highest in a review of proposals, said Chris Gautz, the Michigan Department of Corrections public information officer. The company’s value comes from experience in crisis intervention, providing weekend and night shift care for prisoners and its medication practices that could lower pharmacy spending.
The company also offers better monitoring and transparency of prisoner care than the previous provider, Gautz said.
But critics are skeptical. Matthew Robb, a Detroit attorney, is exploring a statewide class action lawsuit regarding Wellpath’s prescription policies and mental health care in Michigan’s county jails.
Wellpath is one of the largest providers of health care to incarcerated people in the country, Robb said.
After acquiring health care provider Correct Care Solutions, H.I.G. Capital merged it with Correctional Medical Group Companies under the name Wellpath. Correct Care is a former partner of Grand Prairie.
According to the U.S. Security and Exchange Commision archives, Dr. Reiger also served as an executive at Correct Care.
Controversies regarding Correct Care and Wellpath have appeared in several publications:
- Last July, the Traverse City Record Eagle reported on court testimony from prisoners and their families alleging that Wellpath withheld medication and care.
- CNN reported that between 2014 and 2019, the company was accused of contributing to 70 deaths.
- The Detroit Free Press reported on Jessica Preston’s lawsuit regarding Correct Care Solutions in Macomb County Jail. Preston alleges that her rights were violated when she was made to give birth on the jail’s floor.
- A Metro Times article listed several allegations regarding care and withholding prescription medications in jails contracting Correct Care. This article mentions Brad Lafuze, who was not provided his medication in Grand Traverse County Jail. It also mentions David Stojcevski, who died in Macomb County Jail’s, from prescription medication withdrawal.
- A 2018 report from the Project on Government Oversight, a nonpartisan independent watchdog, found Correct Care and its acquired companies had been sued nearly 1,400 times this past decade.
Focusing on the number of lawsuits is misleading, Lilley wrote. Wellpath medical professionals deliver high-quality care nationwide, she said.
“With respect to lawsuits, 91% of all matters are closed with no payment by Wellpath,” Lilley wrote in an email.
While county jails are not administered by the state, these cases raise questions regarding Wellpath’s practices and the value of the state contract to taxpayers, Robb said. In both county jails and state prisons, the incentive is still outsourcing and reducing liability.
“They keep changing their name, but it’s still the same corporation headquartered in Tennessee that is largely financed by private equity firms,” Robb said. “It’s all a huge shell game in terms of corporate formation.”
In state prisons, Wellpath will serve as a management services organization for Grand Prairie, Lilley wrote. This means handling administrative tasks related to human resources, like recruiting, finance and legal services.
A lot of times these management service organizations are set up to minimize liability and maximize profits, said Tom Watkins, former head of the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority. In his experience, issues of transparency and accountability in state contracts aren’t new. once public dollars become private and they lose public oversight, Watkins said.
However, the state is responsible for ensuring value for those the service is purchased for, Watkins said. This applies whether it’s cars for state employees or buying health care for prisoners.
This care is a significant responsibility for an aging population. About one quarter of Michigan prisoners are older than 50. Many are serving life without parole or sentences exceeding 20 years, said John Cooper, executive director of Safe & Just Michigan, an advocacy group for people who have been incarcerated and prison reform. Health care for inmates is a significant concern of his organization and also is a significant cost to Michigan taxpayers.
Michigan has the country’s oldest prisoner population, including people in their 80s, Gautz said. Many did not receive regular health care prior to incarceration. Undiagnosed illnesses are often uncovered in prison.
“There is no Medicare or Medicaid coverage for people who are incarcerated,” Cooper said. “So, that’s all state of Michigan general fund dollars that are paying for these things.”
Doctors in Michigan prisons are largely contracted by companies like Wellpath. Other health care providers, such as nurses, are employed by the state. The public/private system increases the department’s oversight of health care and use of taxpayer resources, Gautz said.
“Having state employees and contractual employees together, rather than one entity providing all the services, helps us ensure that patients are getting the care that they need and deserve,” he said.
The corrections department looked into the validity of former complaints and allegations but focused mainly on the content of Grand Prairie’s proposals, Gautz said.
“These are human beings and we are entrusted with their care.” Gautz said. “That’s something the state has to, and does, take very seriously.”
The corrections department has a unit for contract monitoring to prevent abuses, Gautz said. This unit administers fines when necessary against the contractors that reduce their payments.
“We have very strict protocols and when things aren’t done, we have ways to hold them to account for that,” he said.
This level of state oversight over large out-of-state companies can be difficult, Watkins said.
“The state doesn’t even have the staff, these companies have every lobbyist, every PR firm, every accountant,” Watkins said. “It’d be like having a junior Golden Gloves boxer going up against Muhammad Ali.”
Governments may contract these companies seeking reduced cost and liability, but they are designed to dodge liability, Robb said.
“It’s a game of whack-a-mole, trying to push responsibility from one place to the next,” Robb said.
People should remember that anyone can wind up in jail or prison, Robb said. Michigan residents should pay attention to how these contracts can affect the whole state.
“There are consequences for all of us, so be vigilant,” Robb said. “Deprivation of care and resources hurts all of us.”