To the editor: State prisons fail inmates needing healthcare

On May 4, 2021 members of the Vermont Just Justice organization held a rally at the statehouse to bring awareness to the accepted practice of denying healthcare to incarcerated individuals. Vermont law 28 VSA 801 (a) clearly states the following: The department shall provide healthcare for inmates in accordance with prevailing medical standards.

A quick look up for the VitalCore Kansas-based provider states the following under cost containment: VitalCore controls costs by ensuring that the patient receives the right amount of care the first time. And there is an emphasis on their staff being trained to make medical judgment calls and only sending patients off-site when needed.

Last week VPR hosted a call-in to the commissioner of the Vermont Department of Corrections, the Defender General and the commissioner of Health. The first call highlighted the type of care, or lack of care — our inmates receive for our $23 million expenditure on this for-profit care. This individual suffered a broken foot while incarcerated and, according to his grandmother, he never had an X-ray or treatment in spite of multiple sick slips asking for care. He is now out of prison with a painful non-union fracture.

The Defender General openly admitted that short-term incarcerations often do not yield treatment because to get care outside of the prison wall, an incarcerated individual has to bring a lawsuit. How is that the prevailing medical standard that our law mandates? Why are we allowing appropriate healthcare to be denied unless a law suit against Vitalcore opens the purse string to real healthcare? What kind of healthcare can be administered in a prison where there are no X-rays, MRIs or any other modern day assessment tools? The only modern day assessment tool available in prison is telehealth. No testing is performed via telehealth.

Our DOC commissioner blames the systemic health-care failure on an increase in the aging population. A look at the DOC website in March shows only 144 of our instate inmate population is 55 and over, out of 1,322 inmates. Additionally he asserts that number has increased, yet — from the same website in March of 2020 — we had 169 inmates 55 and older. Another assertion is that many suffer from chronic illnesses. Substance use disorder is considered a chronic illness, and those with this disease also can have hepatitis C. I believe that accounts for many of the people he refers to as chronically ill, versus an aging population with other diseases. Conveniently on the DOC website there are no chronic disease statistics listed.

Much has been reported in the news of our inmate death toll rising. And there does not seem to be a change in attitude, or blame for these untimely deaths. Now, we are signing a contract with a new/oldhealthcare provider: Wellpath LLC, another for-profit to the tune of $33 million annually. In addition to wrongful death suits and more than 1,000 federal lawsuits against this company, CNN investigated in 2019 and interviewed more than 50 current and former Wellpath employees, “the vast majority of whom said the company has provided substandard medical care in jails and prison.” (You can read the full CNN report here.) Or same philosophy, different company.

Our DOC commissioner has stated as a value that “people in custody are first and foremost, people.” With that being said:

  • Stop denying people the healthcare our law provides, a prison is not a hospital, so when an inmate needs a specialist, or an X-ray or an MRI stop denying that care.
  • Stop the allowance of medical care only when litigated. Litigation takes years and allows a disease process to march on.

Stop taking people off of the medications they come in with by their community provider. Those providers know their  patients the best, not the telehealth provider who cares for hundreds of inmates remotely, with the main objective of denying care for corporate profit.

Leslie Thorsen
Thorsen is a member of Vermont Just Justice.

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