Privatizing medical services at the Niagara County Jail probably sounded like a good idea a few years ago, as long as that care was competent and effective.
There was a potential $800,000 savings over the life of the contract with Florida-based Armor Correctional Health Service. Now, a couple of lawsuits after the deaths of two inmates could more than wipe out any savings.
And yet, county leaders have decided to stick with the company.
That is remarkable, given the scathing report from the state Commission of Corrections following the deaths of Tommie Lee Jones and Daniel Pantera in December 2012. The agency recommended that the county consider replacing Armor, whose contract runs out at the end of this year.
As News Niagara reporter Thomas J. Prohaska wrote, the state report blamed the deaths on errors by Dr. Steven C. Gasiewicz, the local physician hired by Armor as jail medical director. What at first looked like a reasonable solution to medical services – money savings and 24/7 coverage – quickly took a wrong turn.
Pantera, 46, died on Christmas Day 2012. He was in jail after being arrested for shoplifting a cup of coffee. He suffered from mental illness and yet was put in solitary where, at one point, he ran full speed into the wall of his cell, knocking himself out, according to a guard. “The cell was so cold that the state report said the main cause of Pantera’s death was hypothermia,” Prohaska wrote..
Jones, 51, had a history of heart trouble and was jailed as a parole violator. The state report said he was refused essential medications and given an incorrect prescription.
The Pantera and Jones families have filed wrongful death suits against the county. Pantera’s widow has sued Gasiewicz. The lawyer for Gasiewicz denies any wrongdoing.
The state report also ordered Legislature Chairman William L. Ross, C-Wheatfield, to look into the company’s work and assess whether to retain Armor. Ross’ response after visiting the jail three times in January, inspecting the facility and meeting with Gasiewicz? “I’m no expert, but I was impressed with the doctor.”
Something is badly amiss at the Niagara County Jail. It’s puzzling to say the least why county leaders decided not to cut the company loose before its contract runs out. Ross did say the county will likely seek new bids later this year.
Inmate care is a concern for officials in more counties than Niagara. Just ask Erie County, which was sued by the U.S. Justice Department after a series of inmate deaths at its lockups. That led to a slate of improvements in care.
When the state Commission of Corrections recommends considering a change in health care providers, those in charge would do well to listen before substandard care leads to another lawsuit.