City officials ask federal judge to void health care contract at Orleans Parish Prison _lowres

Advocate photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Sheriff Marlin Gusman is overseeing the construction of a new prison facility for Orleans parish inmates Tuesday, February 18, 2014.

A bitter and long-running fight over the cost of court-ordered reforms at Orleans Parish Prison flared again Thursday as Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration asked a federal judge to cancel an $83 million contract that Sheriff Marlin Gusman awarded last year to a company that specializes in providing health care at prisons.

City Attorney Sharonda Williams, citing the contract’s “exorbitant price tag,” accused Gusman of overstepping his authority and improperly excluding city officials from a procurement process that played out behind closed doors.

In awarding the five-year deal to Correct Care Solutions, Williams contended, the sheriff accepted “financially crippling” terms and ignored “basic Louisiana contract law” and the city charter.

“Louisiana law provides that the authority to enter into a contract with a health care provider for the Orleans Parish Prison belongs solely to the City of New Orleans,” Williams wrote in a court filing. “The city requests that the agreement be declared a nullity and invalidated so that the city may pursue a more financially responsible contract.”

Gusman’s lawyers had not responded by Thursday night, and the sheriff’s spokesman declined to comment on the allegations.

The city’s request, filed in U.S. District Court, marked the latest salvo in the battle between Gusman and Landrieu over how to pay for the federally monitored overhaul of the jail.

A 2013 consent decree, an agreement triggered by a class-action lawsuit, called for sweeping changes intended to improve the jail’s violent and unsanitary conditions, including increased staffing and a rewriting of numerous Sheriff’s Office policies.

Landrieu resisted the settlement, which was joined by the U.S. Justice Department. He called for the jail to be placed in federal receivership.

His opposition to the consent decree was rooted in the uncertainty over the cost of the wholesale reforms, which has mounted even as the Sheriff’s Office struggles to recruit new deputies. Louisiana law requires the city to foot the bill for inmate care even though Gusman operates the jail.

The sheriff’s deal with Correct Care Solutions calls for the company to be paid $15.4 million in the first year, increasing to $17.3 million by the fifth year, making it among the most lucrative contracts associated with the jail reforms.

The consent decree included a long list of required medical and mental health care improvements that Gusman decided to outsource. While the sheriff wields considerable control over contracting and hiring decisions for the jail, the city is challenging the health care deal as “unenforceable,” citing a statute that says “the governing authority of each parish” may appoint a health care provider for inmates.

Williams asked U.S. District Judge Lance Africk, who is overseeing the jail reforms, to declare the contract null and void. The City Council, she said, has not appropriated any funds to support the contract, even though the Nashville, Tennessee-based company began treating inmates in the fall. The contract’s own language, she added, “recognizes that the agreement can be terminated if the city does not appropriate funding.”

City officials pointed to a list of jurisdictions with jail populations similar to that of New Orleans that are paying considerably less for inmate health care. Under the deal signed by Gusman, New Orleans pays some $20 per inmate per day, compared with about $9 in Jefferson Parish. Correct Care Solutions also “committed within the last year to provide health care services for $12.46 per inmate per day at a prison in Indiana that is similar” in size to OPP, Williams wrote.

Landrieu’s administration says those costs caught it by surprise because Gusman excluded city officials from the negotiation of the contract.

Williams said city officials only learned in October that the contract had been signed, though they had tried repeatedly to coordinate with Gusman to retain a health care provider

“It was not until the sheriff finally shared a copy of the contract with the city that the city first learned the financial picture of this contract was much worse than it could have imagined,” the city attorney wrote. “The total value of the contract had jumped from the original proposal of $32.9 million over a three-year period to $83.1 million for a five-year period.”

Gusman’s spokesman has maintained that the Sheriff’s Office “has and will continue to comply with regulations related to the public procurement process.” But Gusman’s approach to the Correct Care Solutions contract drew pointed criticism last year from New Orleans Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux, who warned that the “selection of contractors in private is a very large red flag to procurement auditors.”

“In the interest of promoting transparency and fairness in government,” Quatrevaux wrote to the sheriff, “I ask that you open this procurement process to public scrutiny.”

The sheriff declined, and for weeks his agency would not even disclose the name of the contractor it had selected.

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