The Vermont Department of Corrections on Tuesday announced a new three-year contract with Wellpath LLC to handle health services in the state’s prisons.
The department’s contract with the current provider, VitalCore Health Strategies, ends in June, and the company did not bid on the new one.
The state previously contracted with Wellpath from 2010 to 2015, when it operated under the name Correct Care Solutions. The new contract begins July 1.
In a press release issued Tuesday, Nicholas Deml, the state corrections commissioner, highlighted the increasingly difficult and important role health services play in Vermont’s prisons.
“The COVID-19 pandemic, compounded with the increase in substance use disorder and mental health challenges, significantly shifted the health needs of our incarcerated population,” he said in the release. “We are grateful to partner with a healthcare provider who will deliver the highest standard of care in this new reality, placing a renewed focus on mental health, evidence-based practices, contemporary health research, and holistic care.”
Deml was not available for an interview on Wednesday.
According to the release, Wellpath will provide “medical, mental health, substance abuse, dental, vision, on-site and off-site specialty, pharmacy, care coordination, and emergency services.” A Nashville-based company, Wellpath claims to serve 300,000 patients a day and is owned by the private equity firm H.I.G. Capital.
Two companies bid on the health services contract, according to Haley Sommer, communications director for the Department of Corrections. She declined to specify which other company offered a bid because the contract with Wellpath has not yet been signed.
For the same reason, Sommer also declined to specify the yearly cost of Wellpath’s contract with the state, but said it was a “notable increase” from the current contract with VitalCore, which had a maximum budget in its final year of more than $22.1 million.
VitalCore signed its three-year contract in 2020, and therefore the costs associated with Covid-19 were not built into the deal, Sommer said. Covid-19 “dramatically changed our healthcare needs and protocols, which dramatically affected costs,” she said.
The corrections department plans a 90-day transition period in changing health care providers, according to Sommer.
The switch comes at a time when an increased number of Vermonters have died inside the state’s prisons or in corrections custody. Since January 2022, 10 people who were in custody at the Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield have died, according to state police and corrections department reports. In 2022, a total of nine people died in corrections custody, including six at the Springfield prison. An average of three people per year died in Vermont’s prisons from 2017 through 2021.
The private companies that provide health care in Vermont’s prisons have for years drawn scrutiny for their work.
In late 2019, an incarcerated person who complained he couldn’t breathe died in state custody at Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport. Several months later, Jim Baker, the interim corrections commissioner, criticized the department’s then-health services provider, Centurion Managed Care, for the circumstances around the man’s death.
Dropping Centurion, the state then began a three-year contract with VitalCore for health care in its prisons, costing about $20 million a year at the time.
During its previous stint as Vermont’s prison health services provider, Wellpath — then Correct Care Solutions — came under fire from the Human Rights Defense Center and ACLU-VT after the company declined to provide records as part of a public records act request. The Vermont Supreme Court sided against Wellpath, arguing private contractors acting as an “instrumentality” of the state have an obligation to provide records to the public.
James Lyall, executive director of ACLU-VT, said transparency was a “longstanding concern” not just with Wellpath, but with other private medical service providers, too.
Lyall also highlighted the inherent issues with a for-profit company handling medical services in Vermont’s prisons.
Those companies have a “built-in incentive to minimize costs and maximize profits,” he said, which has “repeatedly resulted in tragedy in Vermont and around the country.”
“This is how Vermont chooses to provide health care in its prisons,” he said.