I-TEAM: Webster Detention deaths, lawsuits, and complaints -- what's the price for inmate medical care?

Monday, Oct. 28, 2019
News 12 at 6 O'Clock/NBC at 7

Medical room. (Source WRDW)

AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) -- Webster Detention Center inmates serving time are paying for the price of their alleged crime. But when it comes to their medical care, the taxpayer pays a price, too.

And often when the medical care is avoided on the front end, it can get more expensive on the back end.

Charles B. Webster Detention inmates likely all have distinct stories behind their crimes, but each story is now confined by bars, heavy doors, and razor wire.

"As soon as you say the word inmate, ain't nobody going to help nobody," inmate Autumn Goodman said while sitting outside Webster. "You got to help yourself in here."

Goodman was just released from the detention center.

Richmond County records show on Oct. 13, 2013, she made a domestic violence call to 911. The dispatcher asked Goodman did she need police, fire, or ambulance, she responded "police," adding a gentleman would not leave her home.

Goodman admits to fighting her child's father in the incident, but she claims she scratched him after he hurt her first. County case records show deputies charged the 23-year-old with two family violence-related misdemeanors.

"Lesson learned for me,” Goodman said, shaking her head.

She might have also learned something else, too: issues with medical treatments inside Webster.

"When I first came in, I told them I was anemic, and I have hypertension from when I had my son,” Goodman said. "My head was pounding and pounding."

She's adamant that she begged for someone to check her blood pressure repeatedly. Hours later, she claimed, they came only with Tylenol and not anyone to check on her hypertension.

I could've had a stroke for my blood pressure going up,” Goodman said.

"So imagine if I didn't get the treatment I needed for something so little, imagine somebody else that has probably something more serious than me."

Prison policy expert Nora Demleitner says jails are often presumed to have less medical issues than state prisons.

"Actually, in some detention centers, it's worse,” Demleitner said. “I think there are a couple reasons for that. One is the way they're funded. Prisons are usually funded out of state budgets; a lot of detention facilities are funded by county budgets."

Demleitner studies prison and jails across the globe to help offer policy changes to the government. When it comes to medical care at county jails like Webster, the problem is more than just two-fold. The medical staffing can be lean because the county budget for it is, too.

But a repeat offense? Demleitner found jails will systematically avoid treating inmates because it's cheaper.

If a county inmate has a serious medical issues, it's often costly for tests and treatment. Sometimes, that care must be done at hospitals with more resources. Webster inmates go to the University Hospital in a situation like this.

"That just means jail sometimes just say, 'Well, let's just wait it out until they get released. That's the best we can do,'" Demleitner said.

But that kind of waiting game can lead to an emergency, which can be even more dangerous for the inmate and costly to the taxpayer.

The latest example of pricier problems involving an April lawsuit. University Hospital is suing Augusta for $288,591, citing the city abandoned payment for the medical care of 11 inmates. A case like these could lead to the taxpayer bill climbing.

University Hospital tells us they've now reached settlements on all but two of the 11 claims.

"In the big city jails, you have the big medical companies come in, but again, I think there's this pushing off of problems,” Demleitner said.

Currently, the city of Augusta spends under-budget in an already smaller budget for inmate medical care. The city budgeted $12,000 for inmate medical fees in the 2019 fiscal year, but only about $5,746 was spent. According a Richmond County Sheriff's Office request we received, there are 1,022 inmates at Webster currently.

This means, on average, Augusta spent roughly $6 per inmate. Demleitner argues the less governments spend on inmate healthcare in the short run, the more taxpayers will foot bigger bills in the long run in the form of emergency care and lawsuits.

For the last few years, the city has contracted with a private company to help with medical care. The company is now called Wellpath, but it merged with the service formerly known as Correct Care Solutions, an embattled company no stranger to complaints and medical lawsuits.

The I-Team found in the last five years, there were at least three federal lawsuits against care at Webster. One of those lawsuits were later dismissed. But across the state of Georgia, our I-Team found at least 36 cases against the company formerly known as Correct Care.

The now merged company, Wellpath, says it provides quality medical and behavioral healthcare. Their mantra is, "Always do the right thing."

Demleitner considers it a concerning for-profit prison and jail company.

But what do you say to people who believe that people shouldn’t get into trouble and go to jail if they want proper medical care?

“Here's the problem, we are holding inmates as the state, as the government, so if you're putting someone in a position where you have total control over them, we also have some responsibility for them,” Demleitner said.

This year the jail saw three deaths, all listed as natural, which the coroner tells us includes medical issues. Since 2016, there have been four more natural deaths, all of which could include medical issues.

Which brings us back to Autumn Goodman and her medical issues. She was just released, waiting outside the detention center, and eager to head to a clinic for blood pressure tests. It was a treatment she says she never got, even after pleading.

"If I went into a stroke, they probably would've done something then, but when you try to give them signs of small things, they'll push it off,” Goodman said.

Our I-Team made calls to the Charles B. Webster Detention Center to speak with an on-site medical leader or representative for Wellpath. Our calls and voicemails were not returned. We also reached out to the corporate Wellpath office who provided us with this statement today:
All patients at the jail have 24/7 access to emergency care, and receive routine care on a regular basis as determined by medical staff and Wellpath policy.An intake assessment is completed upon arrival to the jail. Sick calls completed within 72 hours and referred to provider if necessary. Patients can request routine or emergency health services at any time.

The Richmond County Sheriff's Office did give us more information on the jail when we asked about available medical care:

Inmates receive a medical assessment when they enter the facility and another assessment before they are moved into general population housing. Inmates also receive a full physical within the first 14 days that they are incarcerated. Inmates that receive chronic care are seen by a medical provider at a minimum of every 90 days. Inmates can also submit a request to be seen by medical as needed throughout their incarceration.

University Hospital tells us they've provided care to 167 inmates so far this year.

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