Sheriff: No plans to end PHS contract

By Andria Simmons

Staff Writer


LAWRENCEVILLE - Gwinnett County Sheriff Butch Conway said Monday he has no current plans to replace the company contracted to provide health care at the jail, despite recent concerns over the death of a fatally ill female inmate.

Conway said he reviewed his department's internal investigation into the death of Harriett Washington, a 43-year-old female inmate diagnosed with leukemia, and was "not pleased" with how medical staff employed by PHS handled her treatment.

However, Conway said he has since met with staff members of Prison Health Services at the Gwinnett County Detention Center and has been assured earlier problems with personnel have been taken care of. There are no current plans to terminate the county's contract with PHS, although Conway said he is still mulling his options.

Asked if he feels confident going forward with PHS as the jail's medical provider, Conway said "with what I know right now, yes I do."

"You can be sued for anything at any time, but I don't have a major concern with negligent retention at this point," Conway added.

The internal investigation released last week by the Sheriff's Department was harshly critical of PHS staff. It concluded that staff failed to send Washington to the hospital despite her repeated requests, pleadings of her cellmates and two deputies.

Washington complained about dizziness, difficulty breathing, high fevers and nausea Oct. 15 and 16. She was seen three times in the jail's medical ward during that time, but each time was returned to a cell with her condition unimproved. Washington reportedly told deputies she had missed two of her doctor's appointments while in jail on a cocaine possession charge because PHS staff never scheduled them.

Washington died shortly after collapsing in her cell in the predawn hours of Oct. 17. Her death touched off dozens of other inmate complaints about substandard health care at the detention center and prompted an internal investigation. Two wrongful death lawsuits are also pending against PHS involving Gwinnett inmates.

PHS spokeswoman Susan Morgenstern said Monday that no employees have been fired or asked to leave as a result of Washington's death, and the company's operating policies have not been changed.

A nurse who reportedly rebuffed Washington's requests to be hospitalized resigned a week later amid an internal investigation into an unrelated matter - missing amphetamine pills. Company officials have repeatedly declined to discuss issues surrounding Washington's death because of patient confidentiality restrictions.

Keeping PHS in charge of correctional medical care in Gwinnett in spite of its flawed track record could make the county more vulnerable to lawsuits, said Joan Crumpler, an attorney who in December filed one of the lawsuits against the company in an unrelated case. Crumpler said the sheriff owes it to taxpayers to ensure that health care at the jail is adequate.

"The contract between Gwinnett County and PHS is for medical care at the jail, a constitutional obligation the county owes its citizens, and Gwinnett County can't give away that responsibility by simply contracting with PHS," said Crumpler, of Nix, Graddock & Crumpler in Decatur.

"The county remains liable for constitutional deprivations at the jail caused by the medical provider's improper policies. These include recent bad acts, ongoing bad acts, and any future ones."

PHS has long partnership

with county

Prison Health Services Inc. claims to have founded the private managed correctional health care field in 1978. As the largest company of its kind in the nation, it employs more than 4,700 medical professionals and support staff across the country.

At the time its current contract was approved in July 2003, the company claimed its rate of lawsuits filed in the five years prior to 2003 was 1.9 per 1,000 covered offenders, more than 65 percent of which are dismissed. Twenty-five percent of the lawsuits were resolved without making any payments and less than 7 percent resulted in a settlement, the contract said. There had been no successful medical malpractice suits against PHS as of 2003.

The company has provided health care for Gwinnett inmates at the detention center and correctional complex on an ongoing basis since 1997. Its contract with Gwinnett County stipulates that the agreement can be terminated at any time at the request of either party.

The contract expires Oct. 31.