Corrections Department Holds Hearings on Prison Health Care

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(Host) The Department of Corrections wants public input on how to provide health services to inmates. On Wednesday evening department officials got an earful. They heard from nurses who have worked in the prisons who say the care is below standard.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) The state’s four-year, $24 million contract with Correctional Medical Services expires early next year. Some prisoners and their advocates have criticized the St. Louis-based company for quality of care problems. An independent investigation into several inmate deaths also found that CMS failed to provide prompt medical attention to a seriously ill inmate who later died.

The state is putting the health care contact out to bid. On Wednesday night, it held the first of two public hearings to seek input on the contract proposal.

(Theresa McAvinney) “There are substandard nursing practices. I mean if you went in, if the state went in and audited the charting, just the nurses charting on what’s been going on, you’d be off the charts. It’s that appalling.”

(Dillon) Theresa McAvinney recently quit her nursing job at the state prison in Newport. She says inmates routinely had to wait to get the care they needed. According to McAvinney, CMS nurses often failed to respond promptly when sick inmates filled out a form requesting care.

(McAvinney) “I had some nurses say, Oh we never respond to them the first day. Let ’em wait. That’s the attitude.”

(Dillon) Another nurse who worked at the Newport facility says that nurses didn’t speak out because they were afraid they’d be fired.

But a nurse practitioner at the Chittenden Correctional facility in South Burlington defended the care delivered by Correctional Medical Services. Deb Moore says there are problems with high turnover and inadequate training, but overall she says the health services are good.

(Moore) “I work for my patients and I work for the facility that I deliver health care in. And I feel that I give my patients as good health care as they get at the outside.”

(Dillon) A lawyer who works for the state prisoner’s rights office also praised the department for developing a comprehensive program for care of patients with HIV and AIDS.

The state’s contract proposal includes a provision for an ombudsman who would examine allegations of poor care. Corrections official Thomas Powell says he’d like to see some form of local oversight as well.

(Powell) “I hope we are able to gather together the kind of local influences that I’m hearing over and over again that might serve as firewalls against any kind of abuse that might be happening in the system, because you’ve got local people with local concerns and local advocacy.”

(Dillon) The state wants to finalize the contract proposal this fall. The Corrections Department holds another hearing Thursday afternoon in Springfield.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon.

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