Members of the Missouri House Corrections and Public Institutions Committee disagree on the quality of healthcare in state prisons. A discussion of problems with prison healthcare services dominated the end of a recent hearing at the Statehouse in Jefferson City.

Missouri Department of Corrections Director Anne Precythe and Democratic Representative Bruce Franks Jr. speak after a hearing in February 2017

The Missouri Department of Corrections (DOC) contracts its healthcare out to for-profit prison healthcare provider Corizon Health, a Tennessee-based company that’s been sued for malpractice in several states. They’ve provided medical care at Missouri’s 20 correctional facilities for more than two decades.

State Rep. Bruce Franks (D- St. Louis) says his uncle died after a misdiagnosis by prison healthcare services.

“He was diagnosed with ulcers, and really he had stage four prostate cancer,” says Franks. “And upon his release on medical parole, he passed away two weeks later”.

State Rep. Paul Fitzwater (R-Potosi) says for all the complaints, he still gets letters from inmates saying they appreciate Corizon’s services. Fitzwater says Missouri hospitals that don’t take sick inmates are the problem with prison healthcare, and are putting regions like southeast Missouri in a tough spot.

“When we have a problem with an inmate, we have to bypass that and take them to Saint Louis or sometimes all the way to Jefferson City for treatment,” Fitzwater says.

Hospitals do take inmates in the case of emergencies.

State Rep. Kathie Conway (R-St. Charles) says drug use and “hard living” are to blame for difficulties in treating inmate health issues, and that she is comfortable with the quality of care provided.

“I have toured some of the medical facilities we have in our corrections [department],” Conway says. “I’d go there.”

Conway admits that misdiagnosis could be a problem in the prison healthcare system, but says the situation is improving.

“Misdiagnosis happens a lot. If it’s because proper procedure wasn’t used, that’s a concern,” she says. “But I want to address the fact that we have been making great strides in our delivery of medical services to inmates, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.”

Conway cites new in-prison health services such as outpatient surgery as examples of improvements in the system.

House Minority Leader Gail McCann Beatty (D-Kansas City) was also at the recent corrections meeting. Beatty tells Missourinet that problems with prison healthcare are being downplayed.

“There was kind of a line drawn in the sand, as if there were no problems whatsoever,” she says. “But I have a stack of letters in my office that say something different, so I am hopeful we will have the opportunity to investigate that.”

Corizon Health’s website says it serves more than 220,000 patients in 22 states. It’s the leading provider of correctional healthcare services in the United States.

In 2016, the “Sante Fe New Mexican” newspaper reported on a federal lawsuit filed by the widow of an inmate who died in that state. The newspaper reported that court case is one of more than 150 filed by more than 200 plaintiffs against Corizon Health.

Health care for prisoners is required by Missouri state law. The Missouri Department of Corrections’ website says it was determined that the 8th and 14th amendments of the U.S. Constitution further established this right.

Governor Eric Greitens’ (R) proposed budget includes about $147 million for inmate health care.

The Missouri DOC says medical units are staffed with doctors and nurses, who provide care 24-hours a day at every Missouri prison. Dental care is also available in all prisons.

The Missouri DOC website says that the goal “is to return offenders to the community as medically stable as possible, so they may become productive citizens of the state.”