- Associated Press - Monday, October 27, 2014

NEW YORK (AP) - A city councilman on Monday said he will hold an oversight hearing this year to examine health care services at Rikers Island and other city jails, where documents obtained by The Associated Press raised troubling questions about quality and timeliness of care in more than a dozen inmate deaths since 2009.

Council health committee chairman Corey Johnson said the AP’s report last week detailing 15 troubling inmate deaths called for examination of the care provided by Brentwood, Tennessee-based Corizon Health Inc., the nation’s largest private provider of correctional health care.

“Given that Corizon’s contract is up for renewal next year, we have to take a serious look at whether they are an appropriate contracted provider,” Johnson said. “From everything I’ve learned so far, I don’t think they are.”

Corizon has a three-year, $126.6 million contract to provide services in city lockups. The contract expires in December 2015.

A contract evaluation obtained by the AP shows city officials downgraded Corizon’s performance from “good” in 2012 to “fair” in 2013, citing inconsistent leadership and care in several mental observation units.

And officials in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration are considering alternatives to Corizon - such as contracting with a teaching hospital or replacing it with city-run services, according to two city officials familiar with the discussions. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t permitted to publicly discuss the plans.

Johnson also has introduced legislation that would amend city rules to require the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to provide lawmakers an annual report on almost every aspect of inmate health care, including information available on issues ranging from intake to “preventable errors in medical care” as well as performance evaluations and “performance indicators and criteria used in such evaluations.”

A City Hall spokeswoman, who said last week the de Blasio administration has begun a “comprehensive review” of Corizon, said officials are reviewing Johnson’s legislation.

Corizon spokeswoman Susan Morgenstern said in a statement Monday the company is proud of its doctors, who deliver health care to 345,000 inmates in 27 states, sometimes under “less than perfect conditions.” She said the company will “continue to strive to improve and enhance” care in city jails.

Delivering health care in jails is notoriously difficult, according to experts.

Inmates come into custody suffering from a range of health problems - from chronic conditions to addictions - at higher rates than those living beyond jailhouse walls.

Of the 98 inmates to die in city jails over the past five years, at least a dozen had cancer and many more were suffering from health problems related to longtime drug or alcohol use. Fifteen had AIDS, HIV or hepatitis C.

But the documents obtained by the AP raised troubling questions about the quality and timeliness of the care provided in some deaths.

One such case included that of Mark Johnson, who died from a bacterial infection in his stomach last May. Johnson, who wasn’t related to the councilman, saw doctors only following days of complaints and bloody stools and only after inmates in his dorm staged a protest and refused to go to a meal until he was cared for, according to the documents. He died after emergency surgery.

Reporters, lawmakers and prosecutors have stepped up their scrutiny of Rikers since the AP first reported on the horrifying deaths of two mentally ill inmates earlier this year - public revelations Johnson, the councilman, said are “disturbing but not surprising.”

“The documents as well as the ratings downgrade by the city suggest that Corizon’s a highly problematic provider that’s failing to provide comprehensive and safe care to the people in their care,” he said.

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