A group of nurses at the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison shone a light one year ago on deplorable medical conditions for inmates, including a lack of medical staffing and a need for more supplies.
The nurses are now on the brink of losing their jobs, as city-parish leaders want to hire a private company to run prison medical care in hope of remedying the problems the nurses revealed. City-parish leaders say they were never equipped to run a medical clinic, and that a private company would lead to better health outcomes for prisoners.
The medical staff serving the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison population is dangerously under…
City-parish administrators have also negotiated for the company — for-profit, Georgia-based CorrectHealth, LLC — to hire the nurses who are already working at the prison. But the nurses say the hiring offers negate the dozens of years many of them have put into working for local government with the goal of enjoying the generous benefits when they retire. And they feel betrayed by the local government leaders who they asked for a lifeline.
"We came here for help but we got just the opposite, we got kicked," said LaDonna Raine, a prison health care tech.
Healthcare delivery has been in flux statewide since public hospitals were privatized under former Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration. The consequences trickled down to local jails. Inmates at the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison used to go to LSU's Earl K. Long Medical Center for both emergency and routine health care needs, and the state picked up the tab.
When Earl K. Long closed in 2013, local governments started getting the bills. While the state's Department of Corrections says it now pays for "medically necessary" emergency room visits, local government is shelling out money for treatment, drugs and hospital visits deemed "not medically necessary."
Parish jails and state prisons have, in a sense, become paying customers for hospital treatm…
It's also getting more expensive. The city budgeted $4.86 million for prison medical services this year, but is on track to spend $5.3 million.
They would pay CorrectHealth $5.29 million for a year starting January 1, 2017. CorrectHealth President Carlo Musso, an emergency medicine doctor, said the money would go toward operations, increasing staffing and building a better information technology system.
John Ritter, CorrectHealth's director of marketing and business development said the company would lure staff with salary and benefits packages that are competitive when compared to hospitals, nursing homes and doctor's offices.
The nurses who already work at the prison disagree, though, saying the benefits are the main problem with the jobs at CorrectHealth and that the insurance rates would drown them.
"I have three years before I retire, and now I have to start all over," said B Stines, the nursing director for the parish prison. She and the others are asking to be grandfathered into the city-parish's retirement system. The nurses would also lose the job security from being civil service employees.
Ritter said he could not speak specifically to their benefit packages.
City-parish Chief Administrative Officer William Daniel said he tried to find city jobs for the nurses, but they would have to switch to administrative work. The nurses say the salaries for administrative positions are not comparable to nursing salaries, and they enjoy nursing.
Staffing levels have been a consistent problem at the prison. Short staffing levels have forced nurses to work extra shifts and caused burn out, the nurses say.
Most of the parish's prisons doctors are on part-time contracts, and run their own practices or work elsewhere on the side. Ritter said CorrectHealth prefers to have medical professionals who work full time for them.
Medical services at the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison are improving, but the nurses who wor…
CorrectHealth runs medical clinics at Louisiana prisons in Jefferson, Plaquemines, Lafourche, Iberia, St. Mary, St. Bernard and Tangipahoa, along with dozens of others across the southeastern United States. Ritter said the company's footprint has given it a pool of doctors, nurses, nurse practitioners and other health care professionals who can help fill positions, if needed.
After Stines, Raine and the other nurses first lodged their concerns about the state of the care in the prison, the city-parish commissioned a $95,000 study on how to improve medical operations. Chicago-based Health Management Associates concluded that the prison's health care operations required new leadership, more structure and more consistency, which the nurses had already asked for before the study.
After East Baton Rouge Parish Prison medical workers complained in past months of being shor…
The contract with CorrectHealth first went before the Metro Council on Wednesday, but some council members appeared skeptical.
"That's why people just go ahead and go through things and don't say anything and live a substandard employment," said Councilwoman Chauna Banks. "This is so horrible for these people."
The council members ran out the clock on the discussion, forcing the meeting to end before they voted on the contract. They should take up the contract again on October 26.
Another concern has been the increase in the number of mentally ill people who wind up in prison. Ritter said CorrectHealth would beef up mental health and telemedicine offerings and that they will custom design a program that works best for the prison.
Health care issues have had repercussions for the prison system, which has faced lawsuits over care alleged to be inadequate.
The family of a man who died in the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison in 2014 filed a federal wrongful death lawsuit last year against prison medical services, Sheriff Sid Gautreaux and Prison Warden Dennis Grimes. A federal judge refused to toss the case a few months ago.
A wrongful-death lawsuit by the family of a 72-year-old Gonzales man who died at East Baton …
The 72-year-old man, Paul Cleveland, suffered from heart problems, mental illness, diabetes and high blood pressure, and his family alleges his health problems were ignored in prison. Cleveland's family argues that prison medical workers were not trained to recognize his bipolar disorder, his mental illness or his heart problems.
Another woman filed a lawsuit in April seeking damages against the city-parish after her son, Randall Toler, died in 2015 at the prison. She does not name prison medical services as a defendant, but alleges that her son did not receive proper treatment for diabetes.
Daniel said hiring a private health care company should pre-empt future lawsuits because the standard of care should be higher. But CorrectHealth was named in a Jefferson Parish lawsuit about an inmate who died in 2013 in the Jefferson Parish Correctional Center, where CorrectHealth runs medical operations.
In that lawsuit, the family of 32-year-old Eric Suffal contends that his complaints of stomach pains were ignored and that negligence led to his death. The lawsuit names Jefferson Sheriff Newell Normand and CorrectHealth.
The family of a man who died in 2013 after a brief stay at the Jefferson Parish Correctional…
Ritter said he could not speak specifically to the Jefferson Parish lawsuit, but that the health care industry is ripe with "frivolous suits that have been filed that are thrown out or unfounded."