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County may renew PHS jail contract

LAWRENCEVILLE - Several pending lawsuits against the company contracted to provide health care for Gwinnett County inmates has apparently done little to influence its chances of renewing a multimillion dollar contract.

Six other companies have submitted proposals to provide health care services for the Gwinnett County Department of Corrections and the Sheriff's Department, but Prison Health Services seems to be the front-runner. Its current contract expires Oct. 31.

PHS was recommended by officials from both the Sheriff's and Corrections departments again this year. Gwinnett County Commissioners will consider that recommendation today while reviewing proposals in a public meeting.

If approved, the contract awarded to PHS to provide medical, dental and mental health care for inmates would be worth more than $6.1 million. PHS had the highest-scoring proposal of all those submitted for consideration, according to a county memo.

A committee comprised of officials from both departments considered cost, experience, references and financial stability in making its recommendation, said Maj. Jim Hogan of the Gwinnett County Sheriff's Department. Deputy Warden Jeff Sligar of the Gwinnett County Department of Corrections, who was also on the committee, said PHS seems to be the best fit.

"We have always been and continued to be pleased with the services provided by Prison Health Services," Sligar said. "We don't expect the new contract would interrupt that in any way, shape or form."

Sheriff Butch Conway said he would go along with the recommendation.

"If the committee recommended them, I feel comfortable with it," he said.

But not all the feedback on PHS has been positive.

The company was targeted by two lawsuits in Gwinnett within the past 13 months. It also came under harsh criticism in January following the release of an internal investigation by the Gwinnett County Sheriff's Department into the death of a terminally ill inmate. Several deputies and inmates blasted PHS for its handling of the woman, who died of leukemia on Oct. 17, 2005.

Harriett Washington, 43, repeatedly asked to be taken to a hospital in the days leading up to her death, but her requests were rebuffed by staff members who instead sent her back to her cell. Washington's two cellmates and several deputies reported that she was sent to the infirmary three times in a two-day period only to be returned to her cell in the same condition - vomiting, experiencing high fevers and having difficulty breathing.

Jonathan P. Sexton, an attorney for Washington's family, said he plans to file a wrongful death lawsuit against PHS and Gwinnett County in the next six weeks. He was dismayed to hear that PHS' contract may be renewed.

"I hope they don't use them again," Sexton said Monday.

PHS has also been named in lawsuits by the families of two former Gwinnett County inmates who died following a struggle with deputies at the jail. The lawsuits claim poor documentation of one inmate's medical history and a lackadaisical response by staff while another inmate was in cardiac arrest contributed to their deaths.

Prison Health Services has been faulted for inmate deaths or poorly managed health care in other jurisdictions also, prompting local officials in Richland County, S.C., and in Nashville, Tenn., to discontinue their contracts with the company.

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.

As the full-time "medical monitor" at Gwinnett County Detention Center, it's Hogan's job to oversee Prison Health Services. He reviews complaints filed by inmates and randomly checks other inmate requests to ensure PHS staffers respond to them in a timely fashion. Hogan also sits in on PHS staff meetings.

Hogan said the lawsuits pending against PHS were a factor in the committee's decision, however, "it seemed that most of the companies we considered had similar situations somewhere around the country in some site that they provided service."