Virginia Department of Corrections announces plans to de-privatize prison health care

‘Working together, we can ensure we provide appropriate care’

By: - July 26, 2021 12:01 am

A picture of the assisted living ward at Deerfield Correctional Center that the Virginia Department of Corrections shared with lawmakers in 2019. The prison, which houses some of the state’s most medically fragile inmates, has seen a major COVID-19 outbreak. (Virginia Department of Corrections)

After struggling for decades with rising health care costs and complaints about shoddy medical care, the Virginia Department of Corrections plans to end its contract with the private medical provider that serves about half of the state’s prisons.

In a letter earlier this month to department staff, Director Harold Clarke wrote that he planned to bring all health care services in-house.

“I believe working together, we can ensure we provide appropriate care to our inmate population in a manner that is both effective and fiscally responsible,” Clarke wrote.

The state hired Miami-based Armor Correctional Health to provide health care services in 2014 after a prior contractor backed out of its agreement with the state when it realized it had severely underestimated the cost of providing services.

The contract began at $84 million a year, rising to about $90 million in the last fiscal year, according to department spokeswoman Lisa Kinney.

The state already directly manages health care in facilities where it doesn’t rely on Armor. Officials took their first step away from the company in 2018 after settling a lawsuit that alleged poor medical care at Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women, where care had been overseen by the company.

The state has since installed a doctor from University of Virginia as health director and, while the department is far from meeting the terms of the settlement, court-appointed monitors reported the state has made progress toward improving care.

The same year, Armor faced penalties for failing to meet its contractual obligations at three facilities, Sussex I and II and Greensville, prompting the state to fine the company a quarter million dollars.

The Department of Corrections is the state’s largest agency and controlling rising health care costs has been a focus for lawmakers.

Clarke did not fault Armor in his letter announcing the decision to de-privatize, writing that DOC “enjoyed a long and productive partnership.”

Instead, he wrote that his decision was based on studies, consultations with corrections officials in other states and a cost analysis. Among the reviews he cited was one conducted in 2018 by legislative auditors, which found no evidence the state’s use of private contractors was saving taxpayer money.

Instead, the report warned that staffing problems were especially bad at facilities run by Armor, potentially exposing the state to more lawsuits for not providing adequate health care. The report cited high turnover among both administrators and key front-line staff like nurses, who left jobs at contract facilities twice as often as department-run facilities.

Clarke said the state’s relationship with the company would continue for at least one more year while the department begins the transition. To current Armor employees, he wrote that there was “no need to panic.”

“No employment decisions are being made at this time. … Please understand the conversion will happen over time and there will be ample employment opportunities.”

Armor, which is represented by a team of lobbyists from McGuireWoods, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Kinney, the DOC’s spokeswoman, said she did not have any additional information to add. “The director’s memo will speak for itself,” she wrote in an email.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.