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

Despite serious concerns about whether detainees are receiving adequate care, city officials have asked the New Orleans City Council to sign off on a year-long $21.2 million contract with Wellpath, the longtime private healthcare provider for the Orleans Justice Center, the city’s jail.

On Thursday, Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration submitted the proposed contract extension to the New Orleans City Council for approval. In the past, mayors have signed off on Wellpath contracts on their own. Now, there’s an additional step, stemming from a 2022 ordinance which took effect at the beginning of this year, requiring all contracts of more than $1 million be voted on by the council. 

But the council declined to approve the contract, instead opting to quietly defer it to the June 22 meeting. Afterward, a representative for Councilwoman Helena Moreno said in a statement that she’s pushing for a committee hearing that examines the company’s performance and discusses the possibility of issuing a new request for proposals, hoping to find a new contractor for the job. 

Currently, Wellpath is likely operating without a contract. Its most recent contract lapsed at the end of May. The contract extension submitted by the city to the council is backdated to June 1. 

Wellpath, which is based in Nashville, Tennessee, is one of the largest for-profit correctional healthcare companies in the country. Since 2014, it has provided services in the New Orleans jail. Throughout its tenure, it has faced criticism over the quality of care its staff provides at the jail – from advocates, civil rights attorneys, and even from Orleans Parish Sheriff Susan Hutson, during her campaign for the office.

Inadequate healthcare was also a key reason that the jail’s standards were found to be unconstitutional, which led to a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice.

At a May court hearing, federal monitors who monitor the consent decree, found that Wellpath was still failing to provide adequate physical or mental health care to people locked up in the facility. 

Dozens of detainees with serious mental illness and in need of inpatient care are unable to receive any clinical treatment due to lack of space in the jail’s temporary mental health facility,  Dr. Nicole Johnson, the mental health monitor, found. Healthcare providers monitoring detainees on suicide watch did not check on detainees in cells, but falsified documentation to make it look like they had, Johnson said. 

Unqualified healthcare staff were assessing symptoms of detainees, leading to bad diagnoses and unnecessary complications, said medical monitor Dr. Susi Vassalo. 

A lawyer from Wellpath, Paige Sensenbrenner, said at the hearing that many of the issues stemmed from a shortage of registered nurses. Through the local staffing shortages are part of a national shortage, the company was doing everything in its power to hire more, he said.

Understaffing of security personnel at the Sheriff’s office also has been an obstacle in providing sufficient care, Hutson said.

A full report from the monitors’ on the jails compliance is expected to be released this month. 

During her campaign for sheriff in 2021, Hutson advocated for tearing up the Wellpath contract and finding a healthcare provider for the jail with stronger ties to the New Orleans community.  But when the city put out a request for proposals for the contract that year, they only got two — one from Wellpath, and the other from Louisiana State University’s Health Sciences Center. 

A purchasing committee, which met after Hutson had been elected, but before she took office, ultimately decided to go with Wellpath. Committee members acknowledged that Wellpath had past issues providing care, but determined that LSU’s proposal did not sufficiently explain how clinical care would be provided at the facility. 

Hutson did not respond to a request for comment on the contract extension or Wellpath’s performance. 

It’s unclear when, or if, the council will approve the contract extension. 

In a statement, Andrew Tuozzolo, Moreno’s chief of staff said that the Councilwoman didn’t have enough information on Wellpath’s performance or the city’s position on issuing a new RFP to make a decision on the extension. 

“Councilmember Moreno would like to see this measure fully vetted in Committee and have some basic questions answered before any further consideration,” he said. “At this point, we lack even basic information about the current performance of this contractor or on the status of any future RFP for a new contract.”

Ultimately the committee’s chair, Councilman Oliver Thomas, controls the decision of whether or not to schedule the contract extension for discussion in committee, or to put it on the agenda at the next full council meeting. Thomas did not immediately respond to questions from The Lens.

The extension submitted by Cantrell says the city will pay Wellpath $21.2 million for another year of work — up from $19.2 million last year. That is over a million dollars above what was initially outlined in the 5-year proposal that was submitted by Wellpath during the selection process, which put the second year cost at $19.9 million. 

Most of the unanticipated increase comes from a bump in a mental healthcare subcontract with Tulane psychiatry, which has been working with Wellpath in the jail for several years. Last year, the Wellpath/Tulane sub-contract was for $1.9 million. The new extension ups it to $3.1 million.

Representatives from Wellpath did not respond to an email from The Lens requesting comment on the extension. 

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...