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El Paso County changes jail healthcare provider amid lawsuits, deaths

EL PASO COUNTY, Colo. (KRDO) -- The El Paso County Sheriff’s Office recently announced a new health care provider inside the El Paso County Jail, after the former provider Wellpath faced numerous lawsuits and dozens of jail deaths, sparking protests from the community.

El Paso County Sheriff Joseph Roybal said the contact with Wellpath was coming to its “natural end” and it was time for change.

“I took the opportunity to move in a direction I believe will care for our incarcerated citizens in the manner I expect with my administration,” Royball said in a statement to KRDO13 Investigates.

The county’s contract with VitalCore, the new provider, began Jan. 1 and totals $11,047,188.68 for 2024. This contract has an improved, negotiated cap increase, which is not to exceed 3.9% over five years. The previous contract with Wellpath was about $1 million less and had a negotiated rate of 5% over five years, according to the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office.

“Unfortunately, the majority of those housed in our jail have prior existing under-treated or undiagnosed medical issues, drug addictions or mental health issues which require an extra level of care while in custody,” Roybal said in a statement about the reason to switch to VitalCore. “Because of these concerns, it was vital for us to find a medical provider who had experience and capability to address these unique needs and adapt to our rapidly changing population.”

However, it’s hard to imagine the dozens of lawsuits filed against Wellpath and the county for alleged medical neglect, including one the county recently settled on for $3 million, didn’t play a role in the change.

KRDO13 Investigates found six active lawsuits against Wellpath, as well as many others that are now closed, either through settlements or dismissals.

Alexandro Duran is a former El Paso County jail inmate with a lawsuit against Wellpath. Duran has paraplegia and requires a wheelchair. During his time in the jail from November 2021 to February 2022, he claims Wellpath failed to provide accommodations for his disability, including cushions for his wheelchair and bed, leading to severe sores.

“When he left the jail, he was in pretty serious condition,” said Elizabeth Mazur, Duran’s attorney. “He had osteomyelitis and he has been in and out of rehabilitation, treatment facilities, and hospitals since then.”

Mazur specializes in prisoner rights and mistreatment, representing clients across the country. She said lawsuits against Wellpath for alleged medical neglect are common.

“There's a lot of private companies out there that offer the lowest bids,” Mazur said. “Wellpath is one that I think has been very competitive at making and offering low prices and we've seen a lot of lawsuits have followed.”

Among the six active lawsuits against Wellpath, four allege medical neglect by the health care provider led to the death of an inmate. KRDO13 Investigates previously reported on the deaths of Cristo Canett and Savannah Poppell, whose families have now filed lawsuits.

The county hired Wellpath in 2019. From then to May 2023, KRDO13 Investigates learned there have been 27 deaths inside the El Paso County jail. Three of the deaths were reported as homicides, four as accidents, six as suicides, and fourteen as natural deaths.

Many of those deaths led to protests outside the jail, calling for change.

“The local community, it sounds like, has really gotten organized and made some noise about this,” Mazur said. “So I imagine that has a lot to do with why there's been a change. The community kind of demanded that.”

Canett’s family attorney, Anna Holland Edwards, said she is glad the county is changing health care providers. However, she said the culture within the jail from Wellpath was so bad she is concerned health care services will improve. Both Holland Edwards and Mazur said they aren’t familiar with VitalCore but neither have sued the company.

“VitalCore is committed to establishing a culture, at the El Paso County Jail, that recognizes the value of each patient and team member while providing quality services. We believe in continuous improvement of the health delivery systems for the justice involved population and are driven by making a difference in people’s lives.

We will work closely with Sheriff Roybal and his staff to develop a strong partnership and implement innovative healthcare strategies that will benefit the patient and the citizens of El Paso County.

The delivery of healthcare services, including mental health services, inside a jail setting impacts the individual patient and the community as a whole. VitalCore will dedicate our vast experience in correctional healthcare to El Paso County. We will focus on providing medical and mental health services that will treat the whole patient with an outcome goal of restorative health.

We are proud to work with, and for, Sheriff Joseph Roybal and the citizens of El Paso County. We view our relationship with the Sheriff’s Office as a partnership that will continually be transparent and responsive to his staff and the citizens of the county.”

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Quinn Ritzdorf

Quinn is a reporter with the 13 Investigates team. Learn more about him here.


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