Prison Healthcare—Should There Be a Profit Motive in the Mix?

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April 14, 2015; Washington Post

Score one for the nonprofits.

One vote made all the difference Tuesday, when D.C. councilmembers voted against the approval of a $66 million contract that would have switched a for-profit healthcare provider to replace the current, local nonprofit that serves incarcerated prisoners in D.C.’s jails.

The decision came as a notable defeat for the newly elected Mayor Muriel Bowser, who had urged the council to award the contract to for-profit Corizon Health. The incumbent healthcare provider, Unity Health Care, has provided healthcare to city jails for the last seven years and had the lower bid in this latest round of contract proposals.

The mayor’s support of Corizon was criticized by Councilmember David Grosso, among others, noting that the heavy lobbying on Corizon’s behalf came from one of Bowser’s mayoral campaign donors. 

In her rookie year as councilmember, Brianne Nadeau cast the deciding vote against Corizon. Her office issued a statement that approving that contract would have meant “entrust[ing] the care of some of our most vulnerable residents to a company with a deeply troubling track record of human rights abuses.” 

The argument surrounding the issue of prisoner healthcare in D.C. grew in volume as activists pointed to the voluminous lawsuits filed against the Tennessee-based Corizon Health, the nation’s largest prison healthcare provider. Claims of wrongful death, negligence and abuse have been filed across eight states—over 1,300 lawsuits in the past five years.

In 2012, the director of the District of Columbia Department of Corrections solicited an independent consulting group to assess Unity’s quality of care at DOC detention centers. The resulting report detailed the “outstanding work Unity had done in providing services at DOC facilities,” according to former Medical Director of the D.C. DoC, Dr. Nader Marzban. Nonetheless, the department issued a Request for Proposals for prison healthcare providers. Dr. Marzban retired soon after. 

Though viewed as a win for Unity, which will continue to provide its services on a month-to-month basis, this fight will likely go another round when the city eventually reopens the bidding process.—Nadia Pflaum

  • Gerrylu

    This isn’t about for-profit vs. non-profit; this is about the corruption within DC’s council. Unity had a lower bid and a positive evaluation. If it weren’t for Bowser, Corizon wouldn’t have even been part of the discussion; there shouldn’t have even been a discussion.