Commission keeps jail health care provider


LAWRENCEVILLE - Gwinnett County commissioners have signed on with an embattled inmate health care provider for another year.

Six other companies submitted proposals to provide health care services for the Gwinnett County Department of Corrections and the Sheriff's Department. However, the current provider, Prison Health Services, was granted the $6.15 million contract.

The commissioners did not discuss the contract during Tuesday's public meeting, but afterward said they supported the decision of a committee who evaluated the seven bids.

PHS, a private company that has provided inmate medical, dental and mental health care in Gwinnett since 1997, had been recommended by officials from both the sheriff's and corrections departments. A committee composed of officials from both departments looked at cost, experience, references and financial stability in making its recommendation.

District 3 Commissioner Mike Beaudreau expressed concern that PHS had been targeted by two lawsuits in Gwinnett within the past 13 months, but said, "We aren't going to let lawsuits dictate how we do the business of the people."

PHS has also undergone harsh criticism following the death of a terminally ill female inmate. In an internal investigation by the Gwinnett County Sheriff's Department, several deputies and inmates blasted PHS for its handling of Harriett Washington, who died of leukemia on Oct. 17, 2005.

Washington, 43, repeatedly begged to be taken to a hospital in the days leading up to her death, but staff members kept sending 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. She died within hours.

County leaders seemed unfazed by the controversy over Washington and the other lawsuits.

"There may be some issues there, but I guess the staff went through the process the best they could. We'll ride with them," Chairman Charles Bannister said.

District 2 Commissioner Bert Nasuti agreed.

"I have to rely on the selection process and the professionals involved," Nasuti said.

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.

Jonathan P. Sexton, a lawyer for Washington's family, said he plans to file a lawsuit against Gwinnett County and PHS within the next six weeks. PHS has also been named in lawsuits by the families of two former Gwinnett County inmates who died after struggling with deputies at the jail.

Lawyers for former inmate Ray Austin claim poor documentation of his medical history contributed to his death. The lawsuit states Austin's fear of needles - a fact that should have been noted in his file - prompted him to act out against deputies who were trying to restrain him to receive a shot. Austin lost consciousness and died of cardiac arrest following the scuffle.

A lawsuit filed by the family of inmate Frederick Williams, who also died in after struggling with deputies at the jail and being stunned with a Taser stun gun, claimed PHS staff members were lackadaisical in their attempts to resuscitate him.

Joan Crumpler, one of the attorneys representing the Williams family in the lawsuit, warned that in voting for PHS on Monday, county commissioners were overlooking problems at the jail that could lead to more deaths.

"If the Gwinnett decision-makers limited their criteria to cost, experience, references and financial stability, then they can easily justify contracting with PHS, since PHS owns 25 percent of the national marketshare for outsourced inmate medical care," Crumpler said.

"However, Gwinnett County must never ignore very real problems at the jail, including PHS's failure to adequately respond to medical crises. It is this kind of problem that has resulted in unnecessary deaths."