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Luzerne County Council discusses health care contract, drug treatment at county prison

 Council discussed the county prison's health care contract April 25 at the Luzerne County Courthouse.
Council discussed the county prison's health care contract April 25 at the Luzerne County Courthouse.

During a public discussion last week, Luzerne County Councilmembers criticized the health care company whose contract with the county prison is set to expire soon. Among the topics were lawsuits involving deaths at the jail and a new drug treatment program.

“We deserve better,” said six-year Councilmember Chris Perry. “Wellpath is not the answer. We have to do better.”

Tennessee-based Wellpath and Luzerne County were named in a lawsuit settled in March for $780,000. The case focused on a woman who died by suicide three days after she was incarcerated in 2018. Plaintiffs argued her death was tied to opioid withdrawal symptoms.

Wellpath's three-year contract with Luzerne County Correctional Facility ends May 14. The prison administration is seeking a one-year extension, according to James Wilbur, corrections head since March. "We want to make sure there's no interruption in health care in the facility," Wilbur said at the April 25 meeting.

But discussion showed council may seek bids for a new health care company to work within the jail.

Wilbur said council should consider Wellpath's role in a new medication-assisted treatment (MAT) program, which treats inmates with drug withdrawal symptoms when they enter the facility.

According to Wilbur, the pilot began on Feb. 27 and about 50 people have received buprenorphine, a prescription medication used to treat opioid withdrawal. He said a detoxification unit was also added next to the prison’s medical facility.

Despite the new treatment announcements, members of council cited several concerns about a contract extension with the company, including an increase in the cost of their services. Other comments pointed to Wellpath’s history and deaths at the Luzerne County prison.

“I’m not happy with Wellpath’s performance… There’s a lot of bad things that have happened in that prison to inmates, which partially falls under their responsibility,” said County Councilmember Brian Thorton. He added that he’s already seen a number of lawsuits involving deaths at the prison in his 16 months serving on council.

This year, two weeks before the prison’s medication-assisted treatment program was said to have begun, another woman died by suicide two days after entering the prison. Her family also cited drug withdrawal distress that led to her death on Feb. 13.

Council Chair Kendra Radle said the MAT program should have been added much sooner. She disagreed that Wellpath is being proactive by adding the treatment initiative toward the end of their contract.

“I think it’s reactive. We’ve been having issues,” Radle said. “It’s not proactive if you waited.”

Wilbur said former prison administrations were reluctant to offer treatment to people with opioid addictions, in part due to attitudes against the practice.

“But not every administration prior to us wanted that to happen,” Wilbur said. “I’m just going to be honest… In regards to corrections, in regards to law enforcement, there’s a bias. There is a very clear bias.”

Some people in corrections think “you’re not helping the situation” by giving medications to inmates to alleviate drug withdrawal, Wilbur said, and others believe those medications inside prisons present a security risk.

Experts like Dr. Gillian Beauchamp, an emergency and addiction physician with Lehigh Valley Health Network, say prescriptions for opioid use are an integral part of addiction treatment and recovery.

Contract cost

Wellpath’s new one-year contract would cost more than previous years due proposed wage increases, the staffing required for the MAT program and a 6% inflation adjustment, according to documents submitted to council.

Councilmember Thorton said, that by his own research into inflation in the medical industry, the company should only be asking for a 1.5% cost increase.

Wellpath is seeking more than $4.2 million for medical costs at the prison for a one-year contract extension through May 2024. The MAT program is estimated to cost $452,000. The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Other councilmembers said pursuing a month-to-month contract with Wellpath and considering options should be the way forward. On the meeting agenda released for May 9, council is expected to vote on an amended contract with the company.

Earlier MAT in the prison

Treatment coordinators at the prison in Wilkes-Barre have been able to offer inmates an opioid-blocking medication, naltrexone, prior to the new pilot program.

But Ryan Hogan, head of the county Drug and Alcohol Program, said naltrexone is generally used as a treatment one to two weeks after a patient has totally stopped drug use to avoid negative interactions. The medication would not be used for inmates experiencing opioid withdrawal.

Pregnant women at the county prison have also been eligible for buprenorphine, the medication used in the new MAT program. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) recommends that women who are pregnant and addicted to opioids receive treatment with either buprenorphine or methadone to avoid complications with street drug use.

Updated: May 8, 2023 at 9:30 AM EDT
Information from Luzerne County Council's May 9 meeting agenda was added.
Tom Riese is a multimedia reporter and the local host for NPR's Morning Edition. He comes to NEPA by way of Philadelphia. He is a York County native who studied journalism at Temple University.
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