Head of prisons says health care will improve for inmates
WETHERSFIELD — The commissioner of Connecticut’s Department of Correction is promising health care in the state’s prison system will improve as his department takes control from the University of Connecticut.
The change, which goes into effect Sunday, comes after recent criticism of the system under UConn Health, including an auditors’ report last year that found inadequate medical care, which they said posed a risk to the health of inmates and exposed the state to litigation.
“I’m told that I’m the most sued person in the state of Connecticut based on title,” Commissioner Scott Semple said during a recent interview with The Associated Press. “A lot of these things I don’t have as much control as I’d like and I want to own it. If my name’s on it, I want to own it. I think that having the ability to more directly steer the direction that we want to go with the health care system, my general experience tells me that’s a good opportunity.”
Semple said he would like more money to go into programs such as medication assisted therapy for substance abuse and better treatment of diseases such as hepatitis C.
But Semple cautions there will be an adjustment period and early problems with the new system. He said the department is not only changing the inmates’ doctors, they are hiring new people to handle pharmacies, hazardous waste, physical therapy and myriad other health care issues.
UConn’s Correctional Managed Health Care unit has been responsible for all medical, mental health, pharmacy, and dental services from the Connecticut Department of Correction since November 1997, a contract worth about $140 million a year. Connecticut has about 13,500 inmates in 15 prisons.
“We will lose some management benefit,” Semple said. “I’m advising the folks that I work with that we will run into some issues, because we just can’t think of every aspect of we need to do and how we need to do it.”
In a statement, UConn said it initiated the discussions to transfer inmate care more than a year ago “due to financial considerations related to the contract.”
It said UConn Health and the Department of Correction have worked collaboratively to implement the transfer.
The change is welcome news to critics of the old system. State Sen. Republican leader Len Fasano said the new system will be similar to that used in many other states and will allow the department to choose the best providers and have them compete for the state’s business.
“UConn medical has done a horrible job,” he said. “There are stories after stories — horror stories. The commissioner can do it in house. He can’t provide any worse care —my words not his — and he can do it for less. So, why not?”
Fasano also is calling for the state to release the results of a consultant’s investigation into 25 problem cases in the inmate health system, including eight inmate deaths. That report helped lead to the decision to end the UConn contract, he said.
The state has refused to release the report, citing attorney-client privilege.
But there are some well documented examples of health care gone awry. The state is being sued, for example, by inmate Wayne World, a 38-year-old who is serving 17-years for manslaughter. He alleges his health complaints were ignored and staff failed to diagnose or treat his skin cancer, despite his symptoms and declining health.
“He’s now likely to die. It’s become a death sentence,” Fasano said.
An inmate at the York Correctional Center, the state’s only prison for women, gave birth in her cell in February, an incident prison officials blamed on miscommunication with UConn Health staff. The cell birth, which is still under investigation, led to a new law which, among other things, codifies existing policy that requires the state provide pre-natal and post-partum services and supports and prevents pregnant inmates from being shackled.
Semple said the change in management will give him more authority to make sure problems like those are not repeated.
“I can’t say that relationship with UConn has always been where it needs to be,” he said. “I think there has been frustration on both side. But, I don’t want to be in the business of blaming. I want to be in the businesses of improving health care.”