News Local/State

Inmates Claim Poor Medical Care in Illinois Prison System

This is the third in a four part series on Illinois prison life

Illinois taxpayers are paying a private healthcare company more than one point three billion dollars over ten years to provide care for inmates in prisons, but many of those inamtes say unless it is an emergency, they are not getting the type of care paid for by taxpayers.

The State of Illinois doesn’t seem to have any mechanism to ensure that taxpayers are not being fleeced in the health care deal.

When William Jessup got to Vandalia prison he went to the dentist. Jessup said the dentist told him he had two cavities and offered to pull them.

“No, you’re gonna pull my teeth out. Any qualified dentist will tell you it’s always best to keep your teeth,” said Jessup in a recent interview at the Vandalia prison in southern Illinois. “I’m assuming it still applies here but obviously it don’t, because I still have the two cavities.”

When Anthony Rivera first got to Vandalia prison he caught some sort of foot fungus.

His feet started smelling bad and he started getting sores, so he went to the doctor there and the doctor gave him foot cream but it was expired.

When he told the doctor it was expired, he said the doctor told him that those were just numbers on the container, not an expiration date.

“I’m like, what are you talking about,” said Rivera. “It says 9/17/2010. How that’s gonna be just regular numbers?  He’s like, well you don’t want it then leave, so I took it just to take it.  I put it on my feet but it got worse.”

Rivera said the sores on his feet got so large and painful that eventually he couldn’t walk.

“They gave me some kind of a shot and it relieved it a little bit but it took a nice three months,” he said.

Illinois taxpayers are paying Wexford Health Sources, a private health care company, moe than $1.3 billion over ten years to provide care for inmates in prisons.

The Illinois Department of Corrections does not seem to have any mechanism to ensure that taxpayers aren’t being fleeced in the health care deal.

One more case is that of Jeff Elders. (Elders and Jessup were both featured in an earlier story about Illinois spending big money on people convicted of relatively minor crimes. Jessup got a four-year sentence for having a stolen license plate sticker. Elders got a couple years for trying to steal $111 from J.C. Penney.)

Elders has a hard growth on the palm of his right hand.  He holds it up for me to see and pokes at the hard part.

“It’s all along the tendon,” said Elders. "It’s climbing probably three inches up my hand on my tendon. That’s all hard, real hard and right here there’s a big ol’ thing. It’s pulling that finger in. They say it’s a calcium build-up.  They called it some kind of hemotobin globin, er...”

It is like a hard stick under his skin that runs from his wrist towards the ring finger on his right hand. It breaks into two strands as it approaches the knuckle, making the growth under his skin look like the letter ‘Y.’ It pulls his one finger back so it’s constantly curled and he can’t straighten it out, and it is getting worse. He went to see the prison doctor about the problem.

“They tell you flat out, they can’t do nothing for you,” said Elders. “Unless it’s an immediate issue, they’re not doing nothing for you. He said, well, I’ll give you some aspirins and I suggest you take care of it as soon as you can when you get out or you’re going to end up like this, all crippled up, but there’s nothing we’re going to do for you here.”

Elders was not surprised by the ‘treatment.’

“That, to me, it’s what I’m used to. It’s the system. Everything’s blamed on not enough money. What can you do with that? I have no kind of say so. If you back-talk anybody you’re in trouble,” said Elders.

Warden Victor Dozier commented on Jessup, the guy who was told by the dentist that he had cavities and was also told that all they would do for him was pull the teeth.

"That’s hard to believe," Dozier said.

When asked about the growth on Elders' hand, Dozier said offenders can file grievances. That is the name for the formal complaint process in Illinois prisons. But in the next breath, Dozier all but admitted that filing a grievance on a medical issue would be pointless.

“If the doctor states, gives him a rational why he can’t do it, I mean, he’s our medical director. I can’t question what he tells the offender,” said Dozier.

Admittedly, a corrections professional shouldn’t be overruling the health care decisions of a medical professional. But then who does vet the health care decisions being made?

In written statements given to Illinois Public Radio over the last several months, the Department of Corrections has said repeatedly that it oversees health care, holding, “monthly continuous quality improvement meetings.” But the department has yet to provide someone who can explain exactly what happens at these meetings, who is involved or what information they are examining.

According to the prison watchdog group the John Howard Association, no one seems to be providing meaningful oversight of prison health care.

In fact, last year, the John Howard Association reported that the state entered into a more than $1.3 billion contract with a company called Wexford Health Sources without auditing the company’s previous performance in the state.

When Warden Dozier was asked how he, as the top official at the Vandalia prison, ensures that Wexford is delivering the care paid for my Illinois taxpayers, he said, "I don’t have an answer for that."

The lack of oversight has caught the attention of State Rep. Greg Harris (-Chicago).

“Well, I’ve heard similar stories and actually worse, and I’m very concerned that we’re paying about $1.3 billion dollars to a private company to manage health care in our prisons, and I want to look into are we getting quality health care for the folks for the money that we’re paying,” said Harris.

Harris has been looking into the health care contract. His interest was piqued by the John Howard Association report last year.

Harris said his review of the contract shows that the deal is a good one as long as Wexford actually provides the care they’re supposed to provide.

“I mean we can’t take the Department of Corrections word for it and we can’t take the private company’s word for it,” said Harris. ”I want somebody to go in and independently verify that people are being adequately treated.”

Harris is planning to hold a hearing on April 4 in Chicago to take a closer look at the contract. He is pushing to bring the National Commission on Correctional Health Care into Illinois prisons to provide independent oversight.

Wexford declined to be interviewed for this story.

In fact, the company with a billion-dollar public contract in Illinois has refused all of our requests for interviews.

However, in a written statement, they said they provide medically necessary care as required by the constitution while at the same time acting as responsible stewards of taxpayer dollars. Wexford also says it welcomes Rep. Harris’ push to bring a third party into the Illinois prisons to audit Wexford’s performance.