'It's Horrible' — Report Alleges Improper Care By Private Health Provider In Maine State Prison
Members of the NAACP’s Maine State Prison chapter are raising allegations of inadequate prison health care services. In a report that details the stories of anonymous residents, they allege that heart conditions, infections, diabetes and other serious conditions are being neglected or misdiagnosed by prison health care provider, Wellpath LLC.
The company’s contract is currently up for renewal, and the complaint comes on the heels of a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the father of a man who died of an infection at the prison three years ago.
According to the lawsuit, 51-year-old Andrew Leighton began complaining of a toothache in July 2018. He was examined by a prison dentist twice and prescribed antibiotics. But when the antibiotics ran their course and the pain didn’t subside, he was advised to contact medical.
He did, five times. He repeatedly complained of “excruciating pain in his teeth, nose ear and neck,” pain on the side of his face, swollen lymph nodes, difficulty swallowing and eventually of being unable to move his tongue or to open his mouth without pain.
Leighton was seen by two nurses — one of whom found a mass the size of a “golf ball” on his throat — but he never saw a doctor. And in the final days of his life, his friends at the prison say they heard him struggling to breathe.
“Everybody in the pod was commenting about it, like, ‘Geez, what’s wrong with this guy?’ This noise he was making. I mean he was gasping, like someone snoring outrageously loud,” says Randy McGowan, who lived seven cells down from Leighton.
McGowan says his friend wasn’t the type of person to complain. Leighton was quiet, kept to himself and liked to read. He had a history of mental illness and was serving time for killing his mother.
McGowan thought he didn’t belong in prison. He looked out for him. And when Leighton got sick, McGowan brought him hot, wet towels and heated orange drinks to try to ease his pain.
McGowan says he and other residents also lobbied corrections staff to try to get Leighton help.
“It’s terrible. It’s just terrible. I don’t know why they didn’t give him a doctor. I never got to ask him that. But he was definitely scared,” says Anthony Carro, who was also on the same pod at the time.
Carro says he knew something was wrong when he heard Leighton wheezing loudly on the morning of Oct. 1, 2018. Leighton mentioned that he had been unable to sleep for several days because he couldn’t breathe.
Carro was worried. And so was McGowan, who recalls the last conversation he had with Leighton.
“I stopped at his room to give him the drink and he said, ‘Am I losing my mind?’ And I said, ‘Why?’ And he says, ‘They won’t do anything.’ And I was like, ‘No, you’re not losing your mind, Andy,’” McGowan says. “I just tried to calm him down and tell him he’d be all right.”
According to the lawsuit, a medical assistant noticed Leighton in distress, sounding like a “pig” while he stood in line for medication. She called the clinic and requested that he be seen. But it was too late. An hour and a half later Leighton was found unresponsive and not breathing in his cell.
An autopsy later showed he had a mass at the base of his tongue and that his death was caused by complications of asthma, an infection of the salivary glands and sepsis.
“I think this case really showcases the sort of systemic problems of prison health care that’s run by a private, for-profit corporation,” says Susan Faunce, an attorney for Leighton’s father, Thomas, in his wrongful death lawsuit against Wellpath. “I think there were instances of lack of communication, lack of documentation, lack of coordination of care, staffing issues, which all sort of culminated when his state became critical and required emergency care. And the system failed him.”
Attorneys representing Wellpath in Maine declined to comment on the lawsuit. Instead, they released a written statement saying that the company has “a policy of not commenting on pending litigation, and out of respect for both the Leighton family and the legal process, it believes that further comment would be inappropriate at this time.”
Nashville-based Wellpath is a $1.6 billion for-profit company that provides medical services to prisons and jails in 35 states, including Maine. It was created in 2018 when owner HIG capital merged two of its companies, including Correct Care Solutions.
Prior to the merger, CCS had been the subject of nearly 1,400 federal lawsuits. Since then, Wellpath has also faced repeated criticism for inadequate and untimely health care, that has allegedly contributed to some deaths and other serious outcomes.
On its website, Wellpath says that it provided clinical care to more than three million sick calls in 2018. And it suggests that the number of lawsuits filed over a period of many years is the wrong measurement of its quality of care.
“Any person may file a lawsuit, especially in a restricted environment such as a jail or prison,” the company states. It goes on to say that only 7% of the lawsuits have resulted in a payment of any kind, which it maintains is approximately one claim involving a payment for every 100,000 patients.
Now, members of the Maine State Prison’s NAACP prison chapter, on behalf of other residents, say they’re facing the same kinds of problems that are detrimental of their health and safety.
“It’s alarming because a lot of these individuals who have serious medical conditions continuously go without the proper services they need so they can get better, so then it becomes progressively worse for them,” says Jeff Taylor, a member of the group’s executive board who says he and others compiled a 30-page report detailing the experiences of 64 residents after continuously seeing their peers struggle with untreated ailments or misdiagnoses.
“One individual walked around here for a few days and his arm was locked up on his chest. He couldn’t even move his arm, and he’s diabetic. So he went down to medical and they told him he had a cold,” Taylor says.
He says the man was eventually hospitalized with excessively high blood sugar levels. But he says, in general, it’s difficult to be seen by medical in a timely fashion or to be seen without putting in multiple requests. Follow-up care is another challenge highlighted in the report.
In one cited case, a resident who had heart surgery said he was not given regular follow-up visits, and ended up hospitalized with a severe infection. When he returned to the prison, he says he was bedridden in unsanitary conditions that led to kidney problems and the use of a catheter against his doctor’s wishes.
According to the report, the catheter was improperly sized and as a result the man was forced to undergo a partial amputation of his penis.
“It’s horrible. Horrible. He’s doing a little bit better but the thing is he’s still in pain,” says Foster Bates, president of the NAACP chapter, who says the man’s cell is next to his. “I hear the guy at 2 o’clock in the morning with agonizing pain. Every morning, 2:30 a.m., 3:00 a.m., he’s in pain.”
Bates says the man tells him he has been prescribed medication to ease his symptoms, but it isn’t working. Just getting access to over-the-counter and commonly prescribed medications can be difficult, Bates says, and medical grievances that residents file are routinely denied.
Wellpath did not respond to a request for comment about these complaints. But Department of Corrections Commissioner Randy Liberty issued a statement saying the Department stands behind the work of Wellpath including, most recently, its expansion of Medicated Assisted Treatment for opioid use disorder and treatment of hepatitis C.
Liberty says the DOC has reviewed the NAACP’s claims and followed up on the ones that merited action. Bates says the group won’t be satisfied until Wellpath is replaced.
“We want the Department of Corrections to get us a health provider that cares about the residents in here, that’s willing to come in and treat us like people, like we’re their patients. You shouldn’t have to die in prison because you’re receiving lack of medical treatment. That should never happen,” he says.
In his lawsuit, Andrew Leighton’s father, Thomas, says he’ll pursue all remedies available to him for his son’s death. Bates says the NAACP is also considering a lawsuit.
But first, he says the group will ask lawmakers to conduct an independent investigation of Wellpath as the DOC reviews bids for a prison health care contract worth more than $26 million a year.