By Taylor Dobbs
In the past few months, the Vermont Department of Corrections and its health care contractor have been sued twice for what plaintiffs say were systematic failures in the prison health care system during the last two years. But a state law prevents the release of quarterly audit reports that supposedly took a hard look at the system in question.
The law, which also makes the records immune from discovery in court proceedings, seriously inhibits public scrutiny of the prison health care system in Vermont. The lack of documented observations of the system by an objective third-party makes both the court cases and any journalism on the topic a matter of “he said, she said.”
One lawsuit, from the family of an inmate who hanged himself in prison, alleges that his mental health care was inadequate and corrections doctors didn’t properly follow up after prescribing a drug. The other lawsuit alleges that a mentally ill inmate (whose name was not disclosed) was left in solitary confinement for 22 hours a day even once officials knew he needed mental health care.
If the allegations in these lawsuits are true, they show the beginnings of a troubling trend in prison health care in Vermont. And it’s likely that officials have documents that show whether or not there are systemic problems with Correct Care Solutions, the vendor responsible for prison health care for the state’s roughly 2,000 inmates.
According to an October 2013 state audit of the correctional health care contract with Correct Care Solutions, there are annual cost overruns in the system, but “contract oversight has improved.” That audit said the state hired Vermont Program for Quality in Health Care (VPQHC) as a “critical monitoring piece” of the prison health care system and the operations of Correct Care Solutions. VPQHC, according to the state audit, “conducted audits at the eight correctional facilities and provided DOC with quarterly and biannual reports.”
Those records, especially including facility-specific reports, could contain vital information about problems in the health care systems at the two prisons in question in the lawsuits.
That contract expired at the end of 2013, according to a VPQHC spokesperson, but there should still exist reports for the time periods in question in both lawsuits. As a journalist, those reports appeal to me because they were put together by a third-party with no vested interest in either side of the issue.
A state law designed to foster open, honest conversations among health care professionals, however, prevents those audit reports from ever going public. According to the law, reports by “peer review” organizations are “confidential and privileged,” which theoretically allows hospitals and doctors to discuss problems without the fear of losing business, thus fostering improvements.
But the prison health care vendor system is a government-provided program rendered to citizens who have no alternatives; the vendor can only lose business if it loses the contract. As a result, the law bars officials — some of whom told me they would rather the records be public — from releasing information that would be instrumental in a wider public understanding of the quality of care for the state’s prison population.
Taylor is a reporter for Vermont Public Radio. He can be found on Twitter at @TaylorDobbs.