Forsyth approves contract with Correct Care despite inmate deaths

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An unidentified man holds a raised fist against the Forsyth County jail during a protest in June to raise concerns about inmate healthcare. (photo by Jordan Green)

Forsyth County commissioners approve a $13.2 million contract with a company that provides medical services for the jail despite widespread reports of inadequate healthcare and a string of inmate deaths.

Before the Forsyth County Commission approved a $13.2 million contract extension to Correct Care Solutions to provide medical care for inmates in the Forsyth County Law Enforcement Detention Center for the next three years, Commissioner Don Martin mused that the contract decision was a separate matter from two deaths that occurred in the jail in May.

“The contract issue just kind of happened to come along at this point,” Martin said. “I think the issue of care of inmates, concern about the deaths that have occurred — I think all of those issues are ongoing and important.”

His colleague, Commissioner Gloria Whisenhunt, added before making the motion to renew the contract: “You know, hospitals have a death every day. They have lawsuits every day. Any time you’re in the medical field, there’ll be deaths.”

Seated in the audience just behind Sheriff Bill Schatzman to witness the 5-2 vote was Deborah Patterson Miles, whose 40-year-old son, Stephen Antwon Patterson, died in the jail on May 26. Another inmate, 39-year-old Deshawn Lamont Coley, died in the jail on May 2.

Miles said after the vote that she has many unanswered questions about her son’s death.

“All we heard is that he had high blood pressure when he came in [to the jail],” she said. “They said they gave him his medication. There’s no way for us to know because we have no record of it.” Miles said she has been told that her son asked to talk to a mental health counselor about depression right before he was found dead.

When the commissioners voted to renew Correct Care Solutions’ contract, Miles said her immediate reaction was that no one from the county or the healthcare company reached out to her to express condolence.

“I feel like they could be more compassionate,” she said. “They could have called his mother. They could have called his father. That company hasn’t sent out a condolence. The sheriff hasn’t sent nothing.”

Correct Care Solutions said through a spokesperson that “it would be presumptuous and inappropriate of our company to send condolence letters to family members,” adding that federal medical privacy rules “prohibit disclosure of protected patient information, even to a family member, unless the patient has consented.”

Deaths and reports of inadequate treatment by staff employed by Correct Care Solutions in Forsyth County jail and other facilities under contract by the company have continued to pile up.

Uniece “Niecey” Fennell was the fourth person to die in Durham County Jail since 2015, according to a statement by the Inside-Outside Alliance, which monitors conditions in the jail through outreach to inmates and their families.

Forsyth County Commissioner Fleming El-Amin, one of two members to vote against the contract, said a sticking point for him was Correct Care Solutions’ lack of cooperation in providing answers about the deaths in the Durham jail.

“I want someone to think about my son being over there or your son being over there and the kind of quality of care they should receive as a citizen of Forsyth County,” El-Amin said. “With that in mind I can’t consciously agree to give an outfit that has 11,000 employees — they’re so large they serve Australia. They have a corporate policy that concerns me because when I asked, ‘What happened in Durham County [in response] to those two deaths?’ he at the very best gave me an inconclusive answer. If you transform a corporate entity you get more business. If you become shady and don’t really tell the whole story and be transparent, then it becomes suspect to me. They’re asking for a $13-plus million contract from your tax dollars and they won’t tell us the information.”

Correct Care Solutions said through a spokesperson: “We disagree that we lack transparency when it comes to a patient’s death. We consider any death within a facility that we service to be a very significant and tragic event, and our medical personnel work closely and cooperatively with our correctional partners to understand the circumstances and address any issues that may implicate the quality of care received.”

Forsyth County Sheriff Chief Deputy Brad Stanley told Triad City Beat last month that as part of the accountability process, Correct Care Solutions is conducting investigations into the medical aspects of Patterson and Coley’s deaths. And on July 13, Commissioner Martin expressed confidence that, while information about some of the deaths is under wraps because of litigation, at some point it will become public.

“Once these issues have gone through their course — through the courts — basically all of that becomes public record,” he said. “At this point, it’s one of those things that you don’t discuss until you go through the process of litigation. That’s kind of separate from this contract issue…. I don’t think there’s any question the transparency part will occur; the question is it’s not gonna occur right now.”

Notwithstanding Martin’s assurances, Correct Care Solutions has fought efforts by the widow of Dino Vann Nixon, an inmate who died in the Forsyth County jail in 2013 as a result of withdrawal from an anti-anxiety medication, to obtain a copy of the company’s postmortem investigation.

Superior Court Judge Susan Bray issued a ruling on May 15, ordering Correct Care Solutions to turn over any materials related to internal investigations into Nixon’s death that took place prior to when his widow filed suit. The company is appealing the decision to the NC Appeals Court, arguing that the materials are “protected peer review materials” under a North Carolina statute that governs medical review committees. Correct Care Solutions said through a spokesperson that the law was “designed to promote improved patient safety and care by encouraging self-critical review by medical providers without the risk of the review materials being used against the provider in civil litigation.”

Correct Care Solutions also faces a wrongful death lawsuit from the estate of Jennifer McCormack Schuler, a pregnant woman who experienced a heart attack in the Forsyth County jail in September 2014, and died a couple days later at Baptist Hospital.

Among other accounts that have surfaced about Correct Care Solutions employees not receiving adequate care, El-Amin said he recently met with an inmate who complained that he had not received an X-ray for his back injury. El-Amin and Everette Witherspoon, the two African-American members of the commission, were the only no votes on the contract, while the five white members, including Democrat Ted Kaplan, voted in favor.

“I received a call from a white male actually the other day,” Witherspoon said. “Said his son came into the jail in perfect health — and he didn’t know who Correct Care was…. He was dropped off, and he just died at Forsyth [Medical Center]. They couldn’t even tell him why his son died. He just died in there. Never had any type of problem. So the stories we hear about what’s going on in this facility — it’s a shame.”

Speaking in support of his vote to extend the contract, Commissioner Martin cited a recent letter from Sarah Thomas, the company’s senior counsel, stating that Correct Care Solutions “has never had a judgement entered against it in any court.” But as Triad City Beat has reported, the company settled one lawsuit in 2008 for $1 million without admitting fault.

James Seramba, a former Army major who served in the Panama invasion and the first Gulf War, contacted TCB about his experience in the Forsyth County jail in November 2015. Seramba was facing a misdemeanor charge of communicating threats related to a statement he made about his then-wife during a divorce proceeding on Oct. 31, 2015. Anticipating that he would land in jail, he said he brought an inhaler and several prescribed medications to court with him in a Ziploc bag, along with a printed sheet listing all his medications from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“The nurse said, ‘I have to verify this,’” Seramba recalled. “I said, ‘It’s right there.’ The doctor’s phone number is on the prescription bottle. I asked for my medication every morning and every evening at meal time.”

Seramba said he was held for four days, and never received his medication. On the fourth day, he said he experienced an asthma attack and wound up blacking out on the holding cell floor. He was rushed to Baptist Hospital in an ambulance. Seramba said his doctors at Baptist quickly realized he needed an inhaler and confirmed his condition with the VA, so he could get his proper medication and get stabilized.

“Nobody gets their medication,” Seramba said of the inmates at the jail, citing an example of another inmate who asked for his medication, and on his second night started “going bonkers” in his cell, leading detention officers to forcibly restrain him.

Seramba said the reason inmates don’t receive medication is simple: He observed only one nurse on staff at the time of his detention, and she was too preoccupied with intake to make sure medications were distributed.

“They’re not equipped to do it because they’re not staffed properly,” he said. “Why aren’t they staffed properly? Because of money.”

Correct Care Solutions said through a spokesperson that it is prohibited by federal law from discussing “patient-specific information.”

Commissioner Martin said Correct Care Solution’s recent proposal indicates the company is hiring an additional pharmacy technician for the jail.

“I think that is a positive step on Correct Care’s part to make that adjustment in their proposal,” he said.

The contract approved by the county commission mandates the new hire by Sept. 1, said Randy Hunsucker, the business manager for the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office.

Correct Care Solutions has made similar staffing changes in Guilford County, where it also holds contracts for medical services in the Greensboro and High Point jails. The sheriff’s office announced in June that Correct Care Solutions was hiring an additional employee at each of the jails “to ensure that timely contact is made with the inmate’s regular pharmacy or doctor to verify the inmate’s stated prescription needs.”

Jim Secor, the police attorney for the Guilford County Sheriff’s office, said the change was implemented after an inmate named Ellin Schott suffered a catastrophic health event at the jail and later died at Cone Hospital in 2015. Unlike in Forsyth County, Correct Care Solutions is not contractually bound to the staffing enhancements in the Guilford County facilities.

Medical staff at the Forsyth County jail feel they have been unfairly maligned in the contract discussion, said Tracy Kinder, the health services administrator at the jail.

“We are committed to our patients,” Kinder said in a recent email to county commissioners. “We believe in our company and the standards that they require from us. We are passionate about providing the best possible care. Not because it’s simply our job, but because we want our patients to get better and become responsible members of the community again. Sometimes we succeed and sometimes there are challenges. But we get up every morning and go back to work, believing that we are making a difference. Starting your day reading a story that we are failures is not helpful, and still, we show up and give everything we have.”

Commissioner Martin said the county was left with no choice but to extend the contract to Correct Care Solutions because there were no other bidders. As an alternative, Commissioner El-Amin said he would have liked to see the county extend the bidding period, or even transfer responsibility for medical services to the public health department. The public health director, Marlon Hunter, is required by state law to sign off on the medical plan for the jail.

County Manager Dudley Watts told commissioners it’s not really feasible to shift responsibility to the public health department, at least not immediately.

“At the point where we are right now, we would really be doing that in crisis planning mode, I would say, because we know we’ve got to have healthcare professionals in that facility by the expiration of this in August,” Watts said. “My fear there is you would actually create more exposure to the prisoners just because we would be doing that in an emergency-type of arrangement.”

Commissioner Witherspoon said the contract with Correct Care Solutions reflects poorly on Forsyth County.

“What this contract does is it stains the name of the sheriff’s department,” Witherspoon said. “It makes the sheriff’s department look bad. It makes Forsyth County look bad. It makes the department of public health look bad. And it makes us as commissioners look bad. So we’re willing to sacrifice our good name just to save a couple dollars.”