Are Vt. inmates getting the health care they need behind bars? Advocates raise concerns

Published: Aug. 8, 2023 at 5:19 PM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Is health care for people behind bars in Vermont good enough? That was the debate Tuesday in a hearing that included lawmakers, Corrections officials and prisoner advocates.

Jen Canfield says her son, who is incarcerated, has severe mental health struggles. And after telling his mom he was contemplating suicide, he was isolated for five days until a health care provider could see him.

“There’s no counseling. There’s no group therapy. There’s no... what we in the community would want for mental health treatment,” Canfield said.

The lack of general health care in prisons is shared by current and former inmates alike.

“The sick slip turnaround time was approximately five to seven business days,” said Tim Burgess, who was formerly incarcerated.

The Vermont Department of Corrections struck a three-year deal to outsource its health care services to a company called Wellpath earlier this year. The staff took over control just last month.

A quick search shows Wellpath has been sued hundreds of times in federal court over the last decade.

Inmate advocates say they haven’t gotten off to a good start here in Vermont.

“They shared with us a memo shared with them from DOC which acknowledged on July 23rd in St Albans, at least 15 inmates received Tylenol with codeine instead of scheduled Subutex,” said Jonathan Ellwell of Vermont Just Justice.

Advocates say creating a state-run DOC health care system would help improve care. But DOC Commissioner Nick Deml says cost estimates show it’s not possible.

“That cost we estimate to be between $80 million to $100 million a year. We’re at $33 million annually right now,” Deml said.

Sen. Dick Sears, the chair of the Joint Legislative Justice Oversight Committee, says even if a DOC health care system isn’t possible, it might be worth reconsidering Wellpath.

“I hope that we will, as a committee, look at Wellpath and what alternatives there may be,” said Sears, D-Bennington County.

Deml says even if there are improvements to be made, Corrections staff is doing everything they can to ensure inmates can get and stay healthy.

“We also talked significantly with Wellpath about connecting their work with our values and so they can deliver the Vermont community standard of care,” Deml said.

Wellpath’s senior vice president was supposed to speak at the meeting to address some of the concerns, but the committee decided to wait until next month to hear from him because of time constraints. They’ll also be getting a breakdown of the estimated cost for a Vermont-operated prison health care system.

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