The Orleans Justice Center. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

A committee in charge of selecting a contractor to provide healthcare services in the New Orleans jail heard presentations from both applicants on Tuesday afternoon — Wellpath, which has held the multimillion-dollar contract for years, and Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center. But members of the committee, who were appointed by the city of New Orleans, ultimately deferred a decision to further review the information provided to them and give more time for public input. 

It is unclear when the committee will meet again to make a decision.

Nashville-based Wellpath, formerly Correct Care Solutions,  is the largest private provider of correctional healthcare services in the country, has served as the jail’s healthcare contractor since 2014. Since that time it has been the subject of controversy and litigation related to allegedly substandard care and in-custody deaths

And among Wellpath’s critics is the person who will have to deal most closely with them for the next several years should their contract be renewed — Sheriff-elect Susan Hutson, who will replace Sheriff Marlin Gusman in May.  During her campaign, Hutson promised to tear up the contract with Wellpath, and said she wanted to implement a public health model of care in the jail. 

But Hutson won’t have any direct say in who gets the contract. She was given a seat on the selection committee — and was able to ask several questions of the applicants at the meeting on Tuesday — but as a non-voting member. 

Hutson herself hasn’t endorsed LSUHSC. But ahead of the meeting on Tuesday, several criminal justice reform organizations — including the Orleans Public Defenders, the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition, and Voice of the Experienced —  wrote a letter to the selection committee urging them to cut ties with Wellpath. 

“​​We have seen them ignore medical requests of incarcerated persons with urgent health needs, delay medication delivery for weeks, and allow minor issues to become life-threatening illnesses by not responding appropriately,” the letter reads. “This is a human rights issue.”

Dozens of healthcare professionals in New Orleans also signed on to a letter asking the the committee to choose LSUHSC.

“The choice here is stark: LSU-HSC, a public and homegrown institution, is committed to caring for all of our community, whereas Wellpath, the largest for-profit provider of its kind, has a legacy of injurious and even criminal behavior,” the letter reads.

But on Tuesday, Wellpath’s president, Kip Hallman, said that his company was the best option, calling it a “public health company” and stressing that patient care is its primary focus — not profits.

“This is all we do,” Hallman said. “We specialize in providing care to vulnerable patients in very challenging environments that includes prisons, jails, we operate psychiatric facilities, we are very familiar with these patients. These are the people we take care of.”

Meanwhile, Dr. Rahn K. Bailey, the Chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at LSUHSC, stressed the network of services that LSU could bring into the jail setting, as well as provide once people get out. 

The current contract has cost the city between $15 million and $20 million per year. But the financial portions of the two proposals have not been released yet. The selection committee will first vote on the technical aspects, and then take into consideration the costs, before issuing a reccondmentation. 

LSU presentation

Bailey, with LSU, said that with a wide network of providers, the university would be able to provide “continuity of care”

“We have physicians and professionals across a full array of clinical services, cardiology, EMT, endocrinology for diabetes, gastroenterology, nephrology, neurology and the like,”  Bailey said. “So it’s very easy for us to bring a full network of a system of care. It’s already in place there.”

Improved care for jail detainees, even after they are released, would make it less likely that they would end up in jail again later on, Bailey said. 

“We’re local,” Bailey said. “We’re public. We’ll be very transparent in what we provide. … We have an investment in the local community.”

While Bailey’s presentation focused primarily on the psychiatric care that would be provided at the jail, some members of the selection committee had questions about the provision of medical care. 

“You’ve shown us much detail how you can provide psychiatric care. How would you include the network — the LSU network — for medical care for prisoners?” asked committee member Karla Felton. “Adequate medical care that they deserve, as well as the psychiatric?”

Bailey said that portion of the contract would still need to be ironed out, but there was full buy-in from the highest levels of LSUHSC to provide all forms of care at the jai. He noted that the university was already involved in providing medical care at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. 

Wellpath presentation

Even before the presentations started, several people expressed opposition to the city renewing its contract with Wellpath. 

Jennifer Mansour, a medical student at Tulane who said she has been working with the Orleans Public Defenders as a medical advocate for their clients, said that people in the jail frequently don’t get their medicine in a timely manner, and in general get “vastly inferior healthcare” to the patients she sees in the community. 

In addition, she said that Wellpath didn’t allow for any direct communication between her and providers in the jail, and that she had trouble getting medical records — despite having the required documentation. 

“So not only are they providing care that’s not appropriate, but they’ve also put up a wall of lawyers so that we can’t communicate with the health care providers — and if there’s one thing that I’ve learned in medical school about good patient care ut is being able to communicate with all the different healthcare providers taking care of someone,” Mansour said. 

During their presentation, however, Wellpath representatives pushed back, saying that it was the Sheriff’s Office, not Wellpath, that determined which records get released. 

Wellpath also touted recent progress that it’s made in coming into compliance with the long-running federal consent decree over the last several years.  But one member of the selection committee, Jonathan Wisbey, asked whether or not it was enough.

“While the progress has made it substantial, I think it’s still reasonable for the residents in New Orleans to expect that seven years into consent decree, it would be more than substantial — it would be nearly complete.” Wisbey said. “ What’s our diagnosis of why that’s not the case?”

Hallman with Wellpath said that compliance with the consent decree has been a “moving target” due to shifting expectations from a group of court-appointed monitors. In addition, Dr. Jeffrey Rouse with Tulane, the city’s former coroner who is now lead psychiatrist at the jail, said many of the outstanding issues had to do with the Sheriff’s Office not providing security staff to ensure the medical and mental health providers could do their jobs.

“When we go on to a unit and there are no deputies on that unit, what do we do?” Rouse said. “We’re not secure. We need security. We need a partnership.”

He said he was hopeful that would change with the incoming administration, and called Hutson’s promise to reorganize deputies to make sure the healthcare staff are able to provide care the “most important thing” he’d heard her say publicly. 

“It’s a Godsend to hear,” Rouse said. 

Nick Chrastil

Nicholas Chrastil covers criminal justice for The Lens. As a freelancer, his work has appeared in Slate, Undark, Mother Jones, and the Atavist, among other outlets. Chrastil has a master's degree in mass...