Fresno County approves contractor for jail medical services

The Fresno BeeMarch 25, 2014 

In a July 2013 file photo, Paxil, Prozac and other medications seen in a storage cabinet at the Fresno County Jail's dispensary.

ERIC PAUL ZAMORA — THE FRESNO BEE

Fresno County Jail's medical services, which faced criticism for much of the past year, will be under contract with a private company in three months. On Tuesday, county supervisors awarded a five-year, $98.8 million contract to Corizon Health.

Corizon, approved on a 4-1 vote, will take over June 23.

Supervisor Henry R. Perea cast the lone dissenting vote because he wanted the board to consider splitting off the juvenile justice center's medical services from the Corizon contract and leave those services under county supervision. He also was concerned that a county staff study examining costs of maintaining county control of jail medical services was not given to supervisors.

That study showed the county's annual cost would be $5 million higher than Corizon's first-year bid.

Sherrilee Lawson, a juvenile justice nurse, appealed to supervisors to keep the juvenile program under the county's control.

"We do have a good program, and it seems like we were just being put on the (bid proposal) because we are part of the jail," she said.

Supervisors Judy Case McNairy and Debbie Poochigian praised Juvenile Justice Center programs, but both agreed Corizon should take over the contract.

"I do believe the staff over there is very dedicated to the kids," Case McNairy said.

But, she added, having Corizon oversee both services would be more economical than separating the adult and juvenile services.

Fresno County's Jail Medical Services are the subject of a lawsuit that is in settlement negotiations between the county and the Berkeley-based Prison Law Office. The county was accused of improperly diagnosing medical and psychiatric needs of jail inmates, which was chronicled in August by The Fresno Bee in its "Locked In Terror" project.

Contracting with Corizon will cost the same amount next year as it would have cost under existing county staffing plans. The county has included a 3.3% escalator in the contract for each subsequent year. After three years, the county and Corizon have an option to terminate the contract or sign one-year extensions for a fourth and fifth year.

Tennessee-based Corizon is the nation's largest inmate medical services company, working in 530 correctional facilities in 28 states. In California, the company runs jail medical services in Alameda, Santa Barbara and Tulare counties.

Dr. Harold Orr, Corizon's regional medical director, said the company will evaluate the county's services to identify any changes that need to be made.

"I am going to see what you've been doing and I'm not just going to take your word -- I'm going to take a look at the measures to see the quality you have been delivering," he said. "Those things that are good, we keep those things, those things that need to be improved, we work on those things to improve them."

Nearly all inmates will leave after serving their time, and it's up to jail medical services to ensure they are healthy then and know how to access medical services outside the jail, Orr said.

He said Corizon is doing that across California, and the results "are reproducible."

The jail and juvenile justice center's 114 positions in medical services were deleted from county staffing as part of Tuesday's approval. About 74 of the jobs are filled by full-time workers. The remaining are extra-help employees.

County Administrative Officer John Navarrette said county departments have openings available for jail and juvenile facility employees who want to continue working for the county.

Corizon will bring a recruitment team to the jail and begin meeting with jail employees, said David Pomaville, the county's Department of Public Health director.

"They will interview all of the employees we currently have that are working in the jail system regardless if they are permanent or extra help, and we believe Corizon is motivated to hire the talent that is in the jail," he said.

Corizon officials said it's to their advantage to hire as many current Fresno County jail and juvenile justice center employees as possible.

Bernita Jenkins, California Nurses Association labor representative, said that not all the nurses will qualify for other county jobs because they may lack the proper experience.

"There are a few nurses who have public health experience, but the rest will be displaced and have to find jobs in other places," she said. "Some will have to work for Corizon, which will reduce their pay and take their retirement and benefits away."

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6166, mbenjamin@fresnobee.com or @beebenjamin on Twitter.

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