Vt. lawmakers examine quality of prison health care

Published: Sep. 12, 2023 at 4:01 PM EDT
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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) - The health care provided to incarcerated Vermonters is under the microscope at the Statehouse in Montpelier. In a year where the state has seen 10 inmates die, lawmakers are now questioning the quality of prison health care and whether better care might actually help reduce the prison population.

“There’s no counseling, there’s no group therapy, there’s nothing that we as a community would want for mental health,” said Jen Canfield, during an August 8 public hearing at the Statehouse.

Taxpayers front about $33 million annually for the private company, Wellpath, to manage the health care of prison inmates. Vermont lawmakers on Tuesday heard what is and is not working, from inmates getting the wrong medications to inadequate mental health and substance use services.

“Is there a process to report that behavior to our office of professional regulation?” said Rep. Alice Emmons, D-Springfield.

Wellpath officials say the company has added behavioral and mental health directors to each facility for more oversight and they say they have a process to hold employees accountable for poor care. “Actions speak louder than words -- that’s what this is about. We’re going to demonstrate through our actions that we’re capable of caring for our patients in Vermont,” said the Wellpath’s Robyn Hodges.

Both the company and corrections officials say the health of incarcerated Vermonters is complex, with the aging population tending to have more chronic and expensive medical conditions. That combined with the frequent turnover of Wellpath staff means it takes time to learn the workflow.

The concerns have some wondering if the state can provide better patient care than an outside contractor. But preliminary cost estimates indicate it would cost the state about $80 million annually to go that route.

“If we move to this, there is definitely a lot of work ahead, many years,” said the DOC’s Kristin Calver. “Really, being able to recruit and maintain a steady workforce, we would have to look at salaries and lifting them above what we know as the state’s pay plan.”

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