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County sticking with jail medical provider despite inmate deaths

LOCKPORT – Even though two inmates died in their cells within days of Armor Correctional Health Service’s takeover of Niagara County Jail medical services, county leaders have decided to stick with Armor.

A stinging report from the state Commission of Corrections last year on the deaths of Tommie Lee Jones and Daniel Pantera in December 2012 recommended that the county consider whether to replace Armor, whose contract runs out at the end of this year.

“We have not made any decisions to change providers,” Daniel M. Engert, deputy chief jail administrator, said last week.

The state report, which blamed the deaths on errors by Dr. Steven C. Gasiewicz, the local physician hired by Armor as jail medical director, ordered Legislature Chairman William L. Ross, C-Wheatfield, to look into Armor’s work and whether the Florida-based company should be retained.

Ross said he visited the jail three times in January, inspected the facility and met with Gasiewicz.

“I’m no expert, but I was impressed with the doctor,” Ross said. “I thought the job was being done well.”

The county hired Armor on a three-year contract in late 2012 to privatize the medical services, which until then were being provided to inmates by county employees.

The company took over in mid-December 2012, and the state report quoted an employee as saying the changeover created “chaos.”

On Christmas Day 2012, inmate Daniel Pantera died in his cell, and four days later, inmate Tommie Lee Jones died.

Pantera, 46, was jailed for shoplifting a cup of coffee at a 7-Eleven store in North Tonawanda.

He was mentally ill and was kept in solitary confinement, where, according to the report, he stripped off his clothes in his cell and slept on the floor, and at one point ran full-speed into the wall and knocked himself out. The report alleged that the cell was so cold that the cause of Pantera’s death was hypothermia.

Jones, 51, a parole violator, had a history of heart problems, and the state report accused Gasiewicz of giving him an erroneous prescription. The report also said that Gasiewicz should be investigated by the state Office of Professional Medical Conduct, but if there is any investigation, there is no report of it on the state Health Department website. A Health Department spokesman said only the results of completed disciplinary actions are made public.

The families of Pantera and Jones have filed wrongful death suits against the county, and Pantera’s widow has sued Gasiewicz.

A pretrial conference in the Pantera-county case is set for April 20 before State Supreme Court Justice Frank Caruso in Niagara Falls. No courtroom action on the Jones case has been scheduled.

John J. Doody, a New York City attorney representing Gasiewicz, filed a response in late February denying any wrongdoing by the doctor.

Engert, who also is Somerset town supervisor, said the Armor contract does not contain an automatic renewal clause.

Ross said he presumes the county will seek new bids this year.

Engert said, “The sheriff (James R. Voutour) remains committed to the decision he made to privatize medical care 2½ years ago,” Engert said. “The sheriff believes that this is the best model to provide services to the inmates.”

At the time Armor was hired, it was estimated that hiring Armor would save taxpayers $800,000 over the life of the contract.

Ross said there is a limited field of potential bidders for a jail medical contract. Engert said, “We had, I think, five responses last time.”