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Dept. of Correction awards health care contract to new provider

Sarah Mueller
Delaware Public Media

Delaware’s Department of Correction chose a new medical care and behavioral health care provider last week — the second provider since 2020.

Kansas-based VitalCore Health Strategies will over health care services — including behavioral health care — for Delaware’s incarcerated population in July, replacing Centurion Health, which has held the contract for the past three years.

Health Care, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Bureau Chief Michael Records says the new contract continues to expand telemedicine offerings, following a broader trend in the prison healthcare market during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.

For some medical needs — including wound care, particularly for people with diabetes-related injuries — Records says reaching specialists via teleconference is more efficient than a trip to a nearby hospital, which requires sending two corrections officers as escorts.

“It reduces the amount of overtime," he said, "so whether it’s freezing [mandatory overtime shifts] or general overtime, if fewer officers have to go out on medical runs, it certainly is a reduction in costs for us."

Records adds that in some cases, the transition to telehealth may mean shorter wait times for patients in need of specialized medical care. "Overall, it has decreased the delays we encounter when trying to get patients into appointments," he said.

The VitalCore contract also marks the first time DOC will pay for telepsychology. In previous contracts, DOC drew a line at providing psychology services remotely on the grounds that face-to-face interactions are more effective. But Records says with few psychologists willing to work in prisons, DOC had no option but to accept telepsychology services in the new contract.

“The market is such that everyone is such that everyone seems to want to work as a telehealth professional," he said. "We’ve really struggled to get psychologist positions filled.”

The three-year contract will cost the state just over $49 million per year: $2 million higher than Centurion’s current contract.

DOC spokesman Jason Miller says the decision to change healthcare providers was simply a way to get the most out of a competitive market for correctional healthcare, though Records added that VitalCore's experience as a health care provider in county jail systems make it a good fit for Delaware's correctional system, which manages both pretrial and post-conviction custody.

The DOC's last health care provider transition was less market-driven: in 2020, the agency ended its contract with the nonprofit health care provider Connections Community Support after a series of high-profile lawsuits alleging financial mismanagement and patient neglect. However, hardly any large correctional healthcare providers lack a history of litigation: Centurion is currently navigating multiple lawsuits by current and former Delaware prisoners, while VitalCore faced a lawsuit by a disability rights group stemming from its role as the health care provider in several Mississippi prisons in 2021.

Paul Kiefer comes to Delaware from Seattle, where he covered policing, prisons and public safety for the local news site PubliCola.