by Jordan Green
A legal team in Winston-Salem is pursuing a lawsuit against Correct Care Solutions in connection with the death of Jennifer McCormack, who died shortly after a stay in the Forsyth County jail. On a separate front, state Sen. Joyce Krawiec is planning to file legislation to provide uniformity across the state to ensure that inmates have access to prescribed medication.
A legal team in Winston-Salem plans to bring a lawsuit against the private company that provides contracted healthcare services to the Forsyth County jail on behalf of Jennifer McCormack, who died in 2014 after experiencing a heart attack in the jail while awaiting trial for fraudulently obtaining prescription drugs.
The lawyers are pursuing a lawsuit against Correct Care Solutions on behalf of McCormack’s family.
“We are in the process of investigating any and all claims arising from this tragedy,” said John Vermitsky with Morrow Porter Vermitsky & Taylor law firm. “As of now, the main focus is the medical care provided by Correct Care Solutions.” John N. Taylor Jr., also with Morrow Porter, and Steven Grainger, a lawyer, in private practice, are also working on the pending lawsuit.
Triad City Beat reported in a two-part investigative series last year that McCormack, who was pregnant and in recovery from opioid dependence, was found unresponsive in her cell after experiencing multiple episodes of incontinence and falling. McCormack, who was 31 at the time, died at Baptist Hospital five days later from causes related to dehydration.
McCormack’s mother told Triad City Beat that her daughter was not allowed to take the prescribed anti-anxiety medication Xanax into the jail. It also remains unclear whether McCormack’s opioid medication, which was underway at the time of her incarceration was continued. Correct Care Solutions has declined to comment on the matter. Medical experts agree that abrupt discontinuation of opioids in opioid-dependent women can result in preterm labor or miscarriage.
The legal team was assembled after Grainger learned of McCormack’s death through the Triad City Beat series.
“The investigation will focus on the medical treatment of the deceased, policies of the medical provider Correct Care Solutions, everything that happened to her in those 14 days, and decisions made by medical personnel,” Vermitsky said. “We believe the evidence will support that the medical care provided by Correct Care Solutions was insufficient and caused her death.”
Correct Care Solutions declined to comment through a representative.
Vermitsky said the investigation could take several months. To date, Correct Care Solutions is the main focus, he said, but that could change if additional information comes to light implicating other parties.
“The reason that we want to take our time to get it right is the issues are larger than one woman’s life and one jail,” Vermitsky said.
“The hope with any lawsuit would be to convince the jail and anyone providing medical services to inmates to value inmate safety over things like expenses, costs and profits,” he added.
The NC Department of Health and Human Services, or DHHS, inspected the jail in early October to determine whether it was in compliance with state administrative code. The investigation was prompted because of an inquiry into McCormack’s death, according to a letter to Sheriff Bill Schatzman from Chris Wood, a state jail inspector in the construction section of the division of health service regulation at DHHS. Wood reported that he found no deficiencies in the jail.
Correct Care Solutions currently faces a separate lawsuit filed by the family of Dino Vann Nixon, who died in the Forsyth County jail in 2013 while awaiting trial for heroin trafficking. Sheriff Schatzman and Forsyth County are also defendants in the lawsuit.
The State Bureau of Investigation has completed an investigation into the death of 43-year-old Scott Shane Aaron, an inmate who was found unresponsive in his cell at the jail on Dec. 29. Spokesman Shannon O’Toole said the district attorney will likely wait for the completion of an autopsy and toxicology reports before making any determination. Like Nixon, Aaron was awaiting trial for heroin trafficking at the time of his death.
While McCormack’s legal team is addressing whether she received sufficient medical care in the jail, a state lawmaker plans to introduce legislation to requiring medical staff at local jails across the state to provide legally prescribed medication to inmates with substance abuse and other health challenges.
“I think we definitely need to consider some statewide guidelines for the Department of Public Safety to lay out the rules where everybody knows the rules and has to follow them,” said Sen. Joyce Krawiec, a Republican who represents Forsyth County. Lawmakers do not have the opportunity to introduce new legislation in the short session this year, but Krawiec said she’s looking for an opportunity to insert a provision ensuring inmates receive prescribed medication into a preexisting bill, with the sponsor’s consent. The legislative maneuver is routinely used to advance legislation deemed too urgent to wait for the long session in the following year.
“We could certainly have a statewide statute that drugs that are prescribed by a physician are to be administered in the jails,” Krawiec said. “If it’s a state law, it would have to be followed. If a prisoner is prescribed a drug, they should continue to get their medication.”
Krawiec began researching the matter after learning of McCormack’s death through Triad City Beat’s reporting.
The medical plan for the Forsyth County jail does not address whether buprenorphine, an opioid medication, should continue to be administered to inmates such as McCormack, who have a prescription for the medication. The medical plan goes on to say that “inmates on methadone or similar substances receive appropriate treatment for methadone withdrawal syndrome. Pregnant inmates entering the facility on methadone treatment are continued on the treatment, when possible.”
Correct Care Solutions also contracts with Guilford County. The company’s May 2014 proposal to provide health services to county detention facilities does not specify whether inmates with prescribed opioid medication to treat dependency such as buprenorphine or methadone will continue to receive the medications, but states that “specific guidelines are provided for withdrawal from alcohol, opioids, benzodiazepine and sedative hypnotics.”
Sen. Krawiec said that at a recent meeting of the Child Fatality Task Force she asked legislative staff for data on which counties administer medication to opioid-dependent inmates, and was told that policies vary from county to county. The staff is putting together a report, which Krawiec expects to receive on Feb. 5.
“It appears that [McCormack] had a prescription that wasn’t for the drug she was [abusing], but was actually an anxiety medication they wouldn’t let her take into the jail,” the lawmaker said. “To me, that’s just negligence to not administer the drugs that were given to them and prescribed by a doctor. If you were a diabetic, do they not let you take that in, too? What about heart medication? Do they let some in, but not others? That needs to be a physician’s decision.”