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Rev. Alexis Anderson leads a meeting of the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison Reform Coalition, Thursday, August 15, 2019, at the main library on Goodwood Boulevard in Baton Rouge, La.

Amid growing concern about the death rate inside the parish jail, Baton Rouge leaders will solicit proposals for a new contract to provide medical care for the thousands of inmates being housed there, most of them awaiting trial.

Critics assert ongoing deficiencies since the company now in charge, CorrectHealth, signed a contract with the city-parish more than three years ago for $5.3 million. That contract is up for annual renewal in December 2020.

East Baton Rouge Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome announced the potential for a new contract Tuesday afternoon. 

"The safety and well-being of every citizen of East Baton Rouge Parish is a top priority. This includes making certain those who are incarcerated are treated humanely," Broome said in a statement. "Discussions about treatment and even deaths at the jail have caused concern among many in the community." 

Broome's announcement comes in advance of two presentations on the agenda for Wednesday's Metro Council meeting: one from CorrectHealth leaders and another from local jail reform activists. 

CorrectHealth and the East Baton Rouge Sheriff's Office, which runs the jail but doesn't oversee healthcare, have consistently emphasized the prevalence of preexisting conditions that often have gone untreated or even undiagnosed.

The inmate death rate hasn't decreased since CorrectHealth started administering care, and it remains more than double the national average. Nonetheless, the company's internal investigations into each death are being withheld from public view — both during discovery in an ongoing civil suit and in response to a recent public records request from The Advocate. 

An attorney for CorrectHealth said last month that all records produced during its mortality review process are exempt from state public records laws, citing statutes pertaining to medical peer-review committees and hospital records. The company alternatively has argued in court filings that the reviews fall under attorney-client privilege.

East Baton Rouge Parish Prison earned national accreditation for its healthcare program late last year, an accomplishment officials have touted as evidence the care meets a series of standardized benchmarks based on industry best practices. One of the requirements is that CorrectHealth staff complete such mortality reviews whenever an inmate dies. 

The most recent death occurred last month when an inmate hanged himself just hours after a social worker took him off mental health observation protocol. That change allowed him to wear a cloth jumpsuit, which he used in the suicide.

Broome noted in her statement Tuesday that she's confident CorrectHealth will be "forthcoming and clear about the current status of prisoner healthcare at the facility."

Some of the recent criticism from prisoner rights advocates centers on the circumstances under which the current contract was drafted and signed. Officials didn't solicit proposals that time around, but instead launched discussions with CorrectHealth without publicly considering other companies or arrangements. 

That was in 2016, when East Baton Rouge Emergency Medical Services was overseeing inmate medical care and services were falling short. EMS had taken over following the closure of Earl K. Long Medical Center, which was shuttered when then-Gov. Bobby Jindal started privatizing the state's charity hospital system. EKL Medical Center had previously provided care to inmates who were transported there in all but the most minor cases. 

Elected officials then found themselves scrambling to find an alternative to EMS. An independent consultant confirmed widespread problems and recommended doubling the parish's annual corrections healthcare budget to about $10 million. But officials chose instead to contract with CorrectHealth without a significant increase in cost. 

Recent depositions in an inmate wrongful death suit show city officials had been in contact with CorrectHealth for months before the consultant's report was even complete.

It's unclear whether the upcoming request for proposal process will include an increase in the annual contract amount, which now stands at $5.7 million.

Mark Armstrong, spokesman for the mayor's office, said proposals could include alternative arrangements, such as an agreement with local hospitals or other healthcare providers that would administer care at their facilities, not inside the jail itself. That's an option consultants presented in 2016 after their evaluation of the system under EMS leadership. 

Broome said her office will welcome input from advocates and officials while drafting the request for proposal. She said she's committed to forging "a compassionate and effective path forward to address necessary improvements" for East Baton Rouge inmates. 

The presentations at Wednesday's Metro Council meeting will include an overview of CorrectHealth's services during 2019 and a report from the company's critics, members of the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison Reform Coalition. The meeting provides a rare opportunity for public discussion on the issue, which has received little attention from council members since they approved CorrectHealth's contract three years ago. 

Email Lea Skene at lskene@theadvocate.com.