From December 2019, a handcuffed man is led toward the New Orleans jail. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

After months of delays, a city of New Orleans purchasing selection committee on Monday voted to recommend the city continue to work with Wellpath, its long-time jail healthcare provider, rather than accepting a competing bid for the contract from LSU Health Sciences Center. 

The decision came in spite of reservations from committee members, who acknowledged years of complaints about jail care from detainees, their advocates and members of a monitoring team appointed by a federal judge to oversee the jail. The selection also came over criticism of the Nashville, Tennessee-based company from Orleans Parish Sheriff-elect Susan Hutson, who will take control of the jail next month. 

The contract, like most city contracts, will be good for one year, with an option to renew for an additional four. Wellpath, which has held the contract since 2014, has cost the city about $18.6 million per year. Its current bid raises that slightly, to $19.2 million in year one and up to $22.4 million in year five. LSU Health Science Center’s bid was significantly higher, at $30.4 million. 

Incoming Sheriff Hutson, who was elected over incumbent Sheriff Marlin Gusman in December and will take office in May, has made it clear that she wants a new contractor to work with her administration. As a candidate and as sheriff-elect, Hutson has said that Wellpath is providing “substandard” care, saying she would prefer to tear up the contract with the correctional health care company.

Hutson’s criticism stems in part from periodic reports released by monitors appointed to oversee the city jail. The monitors, appointed by a federal court as part of the Sheriff’s Office 2013 consent decree — meant to bring conditions at the long-troubled jail into compliance with constitutional standards — have repeatedly criticized detainee medical and mental health care. 

The committee previously met last month, but deferred rating the two firms to give members more time to review their proposals and seek public input. 

When discussion at last month’s meeting turned to the jail’s troubles in becoming compliant with provisions of the consent decree that deal with medical and mental health care, Wellpath president Kip Hallman said that compliance has been “moving target” due to shifting expectations from a group of court-appointed monitors.

Representatives from the two vendors did not participate in Monday’s meeting. Comments from the public, both those submitted in writing in advance of the meeting and from members of the public who appeared in person to deliver them, were uniformly critical of Wellpath.

Several staffers from the Orleans Public Defenders office wrote in to say that the contractor has consistently failed to deliver adequate care to their clients, describing detainees with serious medical conditions who are denied regular access to doctors and medications and noting that the jail has recently backslid on some portions of the consent decree that address medical and mental health care.

“Wellpath has a history of putting profit before people,” wrote Meghan Garvey, a staff attorney for the Orleans Public Defenders, who ran unsuccessfully for Municipal and Traffic Court judge, losing to long-time incumbent Paul Sens.

Janet Hays, who ran unsuccessfully for sheriff last year, was the only member of the public who did not express a preference for either bidder. But she said there was a “lack of communication” from Wellpath when it comes to connecting detainees to community care after release. Hays said she was not sure whether that was the fault of the company or Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman and his staff, but she urged the city to ensure that, no matter which bidder was selected, the problem would be solved.

Members of the selection committee acknowledged those complaints but also said there were problems with the LSU-HSC proposal. One member, Karla Felton of the city’s Finance Department, pushed for committee members to once again delay a decision. 

The proposal from Wellpath “is great, but everyone who speaks about them, I wouldn’t want them back,” Felton said. But, she added, LSU did not provide adequate detail about clinical care. “We asked the question five times and they weren’t able to say how they would treat the patients clinically.” 

“I don’t know what we need to do next. But I would not be comfortable giving either one of them the contract,” she added.

But Jonathan Wisbey, another member of the committee and the city’s chief technology officer, said that delaying the selection or rebidding the contract yet again wouldn’t necessarily result in a larger or more qualified candidate pool. When the city held a mandatory pre-bid conference earlier in the process, Wisbey said, eight or nine potential bidders showed up. But only Wellpath and LSU actually submitted proposals.

“I see today that we have exactly two respondents,” he said. “It’s not exactly what we were hoping for, but it is what we got.” 

Hutson, who was invited to participate as a non-voting committee member, said the members of the committee should pick the bidder they believed will do the best job — or opt against making a selection if they believed that neither proposal was adequate.

“Yes, Wellpath has had problems here, and yes they’ve put together a good proposal,” she said. “But we do not want healthcare that is good for a jail. That’s not what we need. We need standard medical care.” 

She said she expected the contractor to work with her to ensure the best possible care, “But I also ask you to vote your conscience. … Don’t just vote because it’s a pretty package.” 

But ultimately, members of the committee sided with Wellpath, giving it a combined score of 373 points to LSU’s 290 points. Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration will now begin negotiating with the company to ink a final agreement.

“The committee has to go through a process and select who they think is best,” Hutson said in a brief interview following the meeting. “I have a lot of respect for them.”

Asked what she would expect of Wellpath going forward, Hutson said, “Accountability. The same thing I promised the community that they are going to get from me: Accountability, transparency.” 

Charles Maldonado

Charles Maldonado is the editor of The Lens. He previously worked as The Lens' government accountability reporter, covering local politics and criminal justice. Prior to joining The Lens, he worked for...