HARTFORD, CT — High-ranking University of Connecticut officials spoke Monday about how their teaching hospital has cared for prison inmates under a contract with the state Department of Correction. But those same officials were gone by the time four families testified about how their incarcerated loved ones had died from, or suffered because of, extreme medical neglect.
Correctional Managed Health Care, an organization within the University of Connecticut, is transitioning the delivery of inmate health services back to the Department of Correction after 21 years. The transition is still underway with several service level agreements in place for various services over the next few months.
But little about those temporary agreements was discussed Monday at an informational hearing held by the legislature’s Public Health and General Administration and Elections Committees.
Correction Department Commissioner Scott Semple said they should have a better idea of what the new system will look like by January 2019 when he’s able to hire a chief operating officer to oversee three directors: one for medical care, one for behavioral health, and one for addiction treatment.
He said he’s working as quickly as possible because he might not have a job when a new gubernatorial administration takes office in January.
Semple’s comments about that transition, however, didn’t inspire confidence from the handful of families who have had loved ones die while under the department’s care.
Some of those families are suing the department in federal court.
Keshanna Staten, the mother of Karon Nealy, wants to know how a healthy 19-year-old goes into prison to serve a two-year sentence and dies two months before he’s supposed to be released.
Staten said neither the department nor the hospital have given her his medical records.
She said her son was so desperate to receive medical care for what’s now thought to have been Lupus, that he pulled the fire alarm to get attention.
The federal lawsuit filed last week details Nealy’s repeated attempts to get medical care and how he was repeatedly denied.
But he wasn’t the only one.
A consultant’s report, which the Department of Correction refuses to release to the public claiming attorney-client privilege, details 25 cases of medical neglect that could potentially be referred for litigation.
Cathy Camera testified Monday that her husband Patrick Camera’s nosebleeds were ignored for nine months to a year before the tumors started pressing on his face and brain. She said at one point her husband didn’t even know who he was or where he was.
She said the neglect and indifference they showed him was “criminal.”
Camera said she struggled to know when they transported him to the hospital even though she was his emergency medical contact. She said by the time he was offered treatment, it was too late.
Dr. Joseph Breton, the former chief medical officer for the Correction Department, testified Monday that the largest roadblock to care in the facilities were the “utilization review committees.”
He said under Correctional Care Health Management, a committee of doctors in the prison system would decide whether a patient should be seen by a specialist or given a higher level of medical care. He said that in his first year 95 percent of his requests were denied by the committee.
He said those utilization review committees no longer exist.
Legislators on the Public Health and General Administration and Elections Committee pushed for answers about how to improve the costly medical system, which critics say has only been made costlier by medical neglect and death.
Breton said the second biggest barrier to care is the lack of staffing.
“We need to markedly increase providers in the facility and increase nursing staff so nurses aren’t working double shifts weeks on end,” Breton said.
Breton resigned as chief medical officer after three months because he knew the system wasn’t going to produce good outcomes and he would be blamed for those outcomes.
He said lawmakers were asking the right questions about why the contract with UConn ended.
“Why would the Department of Correction take over?” Breton said.
Pressed about what the state should be doing to improve a system that was run by Correctional Managed Health Care, Dr. Andrew Agwunobi, UConn Health’s CEO, said he was “reticent” to answer the question.
He said they no longer run the system, so that’s a question better posed to the Correction Department.
Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, said she didn’t think it was too much to ask for UConn’s help in answering the question.
“You should be able to identify for us [weaknesses], and I don’t think it’s too much to ask,” Somers said.
Agwunobi said cost is one of the reasons why they wanted to end the contract with the Correction Department. He said they were losing more than $1 million a year on an $80 million contract.
The state has only budgeted $72 million for inmate medical services in 2019.
Gail Johnson, former head of Correctional Care Health Management, said they tried to keep the cuts away from the services they delivered to inmates, but that became harder and harder to do.
Connecticut spends about $5,000 on medical services per inmate, which according to Semple is “middle of the road.” He said surrounding states probably spend a little more.