ALBUQUERQUE — Gov. Susana Martinez on Wednesday said problems with the state prison system’s inmate health care identified by a Santa Fe New Mexican investigation were legacies from the previous administration that have been resolved under hers. But how exactly they have been resolved, she didn’t say.

They were her first public comments, brief as they were, about a special report published in Sunday’s New Mexican showing that the state provided paltry oversight of Corizon Health, a Tennessee-based company that provides medical services for prison inmates, despite a growing number of inmate lawsuits and other warnings that raised concerns about the company’s care.

“Certainly the quality of care and the safety of prisoners is extremely important to me and the Cabinet secretary,” Martinez said in response to a reporter’s questions at an unrelated news conference. “I know that they had problems in the previous administration and they carried over into mine. Secretary [Gregg] Marcantel certainly became aware of that, addressed it, and that issue has been resolved — those issues have been resolved. Because the safety of those prisoners and the health care that is provided to those prisoners is extremely important.”

When asked if she thinks that there should be an independent monitor overlooking the health care provider and the quality of work it provides, she responded: “The Cabinet secretary, that’s his purpose, to make sure the operation of the entire prison system is working. There’s an RFP [request for proposals] that’s going out soon. So we will be choosing someone to provide health care to the prisoners, and certainly we want to choose the best one.”

The governor did not take any more questions on the issue, and her office did not respond to follow-up questions asking for specifics on how the problems have been fixed.

Corizon’s four-year, $156 million contract ends May 31. It is among companies bidding to win a new contract to provide medical care for about 7,000 inmates in state custody.

Ashley Espinoza, a Corrections Department spokeswoman, didn’t respond to an email from The New Mexican seeking comment on what specifically Marcantel has done to resolve the issues identified in the story. In a statement published in Sunday’s story, the department said: “To address the issue of not adequately providing oversight of the medical contracts, management changes were made, an addendum was made to the contract, and the department committed to enhancing the oversight infrastructure of the Health Services Bureau.”

The newspaper’s investigation found that the department has taken steps to increase oversight. When the department, for example, finally began paying close attention to Corizon’s medical staffing in May 2015, after years of accepting Corizon invoices with little scrutiny, the contract monitor found staff shortages month after month, and the department fined the company $1 million. It was the only time the company had been fined since its contract was renewed in 2012, according to records and interviews.

But the investigation found that despite concerns raised by the lawsuits, the number of people assigned to monitor Corizon’s performance shrank from four medical professionals to one lawyer. The department said it intends to add three nurses to the team, but those positions have been vacant since they were created last May.

The investigation also found quarterly audits the department was supposed to conduct of each of the 10 facilities where Corizon provides services were rarely conducted. Of about 160 audits that should have been done since 2012, the department could only provide records of 20.

Karey Witty, Corizon’s chief executive officer, defends the company in a commentary scheduled to be published Friday in The New Mexican, saying the newspaper “painted a distorted portrait that belies the quality care provided within New Mexico prisons …

“For every one allegation of poor care, there are thousands of examples of patients who have received lifesaving care, life-prolonging diagnoses and treatment, improvements in their chronic conditions and compassionate hospice care,” Witty says in the commentary.

In 2013, the Legislative Finance Committee conducted a limited review of the Corrections Department’s oversight of Corizon. The review, according to a letter the committee provided to The New Mexican this week, found the oversight had “been spotty in the past” because the department’s positions for a health services administrator and a medical director had been vacant. “Now that the positions have been filled the department is making process towards ensuring full contract compliance,” the Sept. 17, 2013, letter from the committee to the Legislature’s Corrections, Courts and Justice Committee said. “The HSA has assured LFC staff that audits of each site are conducted on at least a quarterly basis.”

But while The New Mexican found that audits did increase in 2013 and 2014, they didn’t come close to meeting the quarterly standard. And in 2015, the department conducted only three audits the entire year, records showed, when it should have performed at least 40.

Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, an advisory member of the Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee, said he came away with two thoughts after reading The New Mexican’s report.

“It’s extremely concerning,” Wirth said. “And I feel like it’s déjà vu because we went through this in 2007.”

Wirth referred to the state’s cancellation of its contract with Wexford Health Sources, then the provider of health care in the prison system. Wexford, like Corizon today, faced an array of criticisms centered on inadequate medical staffing in prisons and poor care of sick inmates.

Some others on the committee, however, said that they didn’t want to directly comment on the story because they hadn’t read it.

Rep. Jim Dines, R-Albuquerque, said he didn’t read the story, but he said that “anytime these allegations come up it merits looking into.”

Rep. Bill Rehm, R-Albuquerque, also said that he hadn’t read the story, but “the Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee looks at all issues” regarding state prisons.

Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, said he was going to review the story Wednesday and added that the state is responsible for the well being of inmates even if they are criminals.

“Being in prison is the punishment,” he said. “Prison is not where you go for punishment.”

Contact Uriel Garcia at 505-986-3062 or ugarcia@sfnewmexican.com. Follow him on Twitter @ujohnnyg.

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