Lawsuit targets billion-dollar company making life-and-death medical decisions in Michigan jails

Taking on Wellpath

click to enlarge Lawsuit targets billion-dollar company making life-and-death medical decisions in Michigan jails
Struggling with a slew of invisible wounds, Brad Lafuze returned home to Michigan a decade ago after serving two tours of duty as a combat infantryman in Iraq.

The blast from an improvised explosive device had inflicted a traumatic brain injury and left him battling epilepsy. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), severe anxiety, depression, drug addiction, and alcoholism are all problems he’s also struggled with since coming back from the war.

Along with the maladies came a long list of drugs his doctors at the Veteran’s Administration prescribed to help keep him functioning.

Then, last year, he was suddenly forced to endure the terror of life without the medicines he must take to hold his demons at bay.

The ordeal began in January, when, while driving on an icy road, he lost control of the vehicle and slid into an oncoming semi-truck. The passenger in the car, his father-in-law, was killed. Because Mr. Lafuze’s license had previously been suspended, he was charged with a misdemeanor driving offense. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to a 60-day stint in western Michigan’s Grand Traverse County Jail.

He considers himself lucky to have survived what came next.

According to a federal class action lawsuit filed Thursday morning in the Eastern District of Michigan, Mr. Lafuze, 36, was denied access to nearly all his medications once he entered the jail. He was allowed to continue taking a drug that keeps his epileptic seizures in check, but access to everything else — drugs needed to control his PTSD, anxiety, depression, and nightmares — was cut off, cold-turkey.

The lawsuit places blame for the denial on Wellpath LLC, the for-profit company that contracts to provide medical services to Grand Traverse County Jail.

“Effectively, Wellpath’s policy is to cut patients with mental illness off their psychotropic medications first and ask questions later, in violation of clearly established constitutional rights and its common law duties,” the lawsuit alleges.

Wellpath representatives were unavailable for comment Thursday morning. Typically the company does not comment on active litigation.

In October, Wellpath’s Elaine Kaiser told Grand Traverse County commissioners that the company follows the best medical practices, Interlochen Public Radio previously reported, quoting the company representative saying:

"We take pride in what we do, we're here to represent the inmate, to give them the best care that they possibly can have. We want them walking out the door better than (when) they walked in."

The company — which bills itself as “the premier provider of localized, high-quality, compassionate care to vulnerable patients in challenging clinical environments” — and its various components has formed a massive footprint in Michigan. Wellpath, which is owned by the Hedge fund HIG Capital, has contracts with correctional facilities in at least 25 Michigan counties, including Macomb, Oakland, Washtenaw, and Wayne. As a result, thousands of jail inmates across the state are forced to rely on Wellpath for their healthcare needs.

Wellpath was created in 2018 when HIG merged two other of its companies, Correct Care Solutions (CCS) and Correctional Medical Group Companies. It is an incredibly lucrative business. In 2018, a business publication in CCS’s hometown of Nashville, Tenn., reported that, prior to the merger, CCS generated about $1.5 billion in revenue annually. But the name CCS, especially, also carried a lot of baggage; prior to becoming Wellpath, it was sued at least 1,395 times in federal court.

Included in that count are a number of lawsuits related to problems at the Macomb County Jail, where, according to records obtained through ACLU of Michigan FOIA requests, CCS first contracted to oversee medical and psychiatric care in September 2011. Since then, various media have reported the deaths of at least 20 inmates at the Macomb Jail.

Bodies piling up in Macomb County

Of all the recent Macomb County Jail deaths spotlighted by the media, none have been more gruesome than the fate suffered by David Stojcevski, whose case has received international attention.

Jailed for failing to pay a $772 traffic fine, Mr. Stojcevski, 36, began serving what was supposed to be a 30-day sentence in July 2014. A longtime addict, he’d been receiving medical treatment — including methadone — for his chronic substance abuse problems. But, once behind bars in a facility where CCS contractors provided the medical care, access to that medication was cut off.

The results were horrific.

The death of David Stojcevski received international attention after shocking video was released showing him suffering withdrawals in his jail cell. - Screenbgrab from WDIV
Screenbgrab from WDIV
The death of David Stojcevski received international attention after shocking video was released showing him suffering withdrawals in his jail cell.

Over the course of 17 days, Mr. Stojcevski experienced seizures and hallucinations. Unable to eat, he lost 50 pounds. As he lay naked on the floor of his cell, curled up and convulsing, video cameras captured his last, brutal days. A subsequent FBI investigation, which resulted in no charges being filed, determined that he received no medical attention at all during the final 48 hours of his life. CCS Medical Director Lawrence Sherman contended that Mr. Stojcevski was “faking seizures” in order to trick staff into providing him with meds, according to records contained in a lawsuit filed on behalf of Mr. Stojcevski’s estate by the Macomb County law firm Ihrie O’Brien.

An autopsy performed by the Macomb County Medical Examiner determined that Mr. Stojcevski died of acute withdrawal from Benzodiazepine, Methadone, and opiate medications, as well as dehydration and seizures.

In 2015 a federal lawsuit alleging that Mr. Stojcevski’s constitutional rights were violated was filed against Macomb County, Sheriff Anthony Wickersham, a host of jail personnel, Correct Care Solutions, and various medical personnel connected to the company.

The case is still winding its way through the court system.

Among other things, to prevail in such cases, plaintiffs must prove defendants acted with what the law considers to be “deliberate indifference.” Federal courts have determined that neither mere disagreement with a prison doctor’s medical judgment nor medical malpractice are enough to establish a violation of the Eighth Amendment, which provides protection against cruel and unusual punishment. To win a case, or to even get to the point where a judge will allow a civil action to move forward in the process, the point that must be proved is what the courts have described as “the reckless disregard of a substantial risk of serious harm.”

Experts say it is an extremely difficult hurdle to clear.

Forced to battle demons

In the case of Mr. Lafuze, he says Wellpath’s alleged decision to deprive him of medication did set him on a harrowing, potentially life-threatening emotional “roller-coaster” ride that left him severely traumatized.

Part of the time, he explains, it took all of his will to keep from attacking his fellow inmates.

“Because of all my anxiety, and my cell being so loud, I literally just wanted to knock somebody out,” he says.

click to enlarge Brad Lafuze. - Courtesy of Brad Lafuze
Courtesy of Brad Lafuze
Brad Lafuze.
He says he also struggled to keep from hurting himself: “I was thinking about suicide a lot, but kept fighting the demons inside my head,” he says. Concern about the effect his suicide would have on his three children, and daily phone conversations with his wife, who offered constant emotional support, helped him hold on. But it was a torturous experience.

“I’d lay on my bunk with a blanket wrapped around my head, just trying to block everything out,” he says.

Despite his obvious distress, Mr. Lafuze was told it would take three weeks before he could visit with a “psyche nurse” and receive a mental health evaluation that would possibly allow him to start receiving his psychotropic medications, according to the lawsuit.

Given what’s transpired at the Grand Traverse jail the past few years, he’s lucky to have survived at all.

“Grand Traverse County has seen two inmate suicides under the company's [Wellpath/CCS] watch — Alan Halloway in 2017 and Marilyn Palmer in early 2018 — along with more than 51 attempts between 2011 and 2018,” according to The Record Eagle, a newspaper in Traverse City. “Both deaths yielded settlements from county taxpayer-funded coffers.”

In both cases only the county, not Wellpath/CCS, was sued.

In the newest court action, however, Wellpath is the sole defendant in what is intended to be a class action lawsuit. A main goal is systemic change, says Matthew Z. Robb, one of the Detroit attorneys working on the case for the law firm Liddle & Dubin, P.C.

“We are concerned about the damage that is being done pursuant to Wellpath’s policies everywhere in the State of Michigan, and we believe that its standardized corporate policies — not merely isolated mistakes at the local level — are the driving force behind people being cut off of their psyche meds,” says Mr. Robb. “Our lawsuit seeks not only compensation for the victims of Wellpath’s policies, but also a change in Wellpath’s corporate policies to ensure that mental health care is treated as the serious public health issue that it is.

“A class action is the best vehicle to ensure that Wellpath not only compensates the victims, but also changes the very policies that are causing people to be systematically cut off from their prescribed meds.”

In Mr. Lafuze’s case, after a week without access to most of his meds, he was suddenly, without ever being evaluated by a specialist, allowed to begin taking them, according to the lawsuit. He later found out that his sister had been advocating on his behalf with jail officials.

Denial of care: More allegations

Cheryl Hall, 64, is the second named plaintiff in the lawsuit just filed in federal court. In a strange turn of events, she is also an in-law of Mr. Lafuze. Like him, she has a host of medical and psychological problems including high blood pressure, asthma, insomnia, severe depression, and anxiety.

In February 2019, she learned an arrest warrant on embezzlement charges had been issued for her and went into hiding. Knowing her mental health had been deteriorating, and fearing she might harm herself, her son Greg Hall, a Traverse City business owner, tracked down her location, contacted police, and directed them to her.

click to enlarge Cheryl Hall. - Courtesy of Greg Hall
Courtesy of Greg Hall
Cheryl Hall.
“It is not easy to turn your mother in to the police, but I thought doing so would help protect her, presuming jail would be the safest environment for her to be in,” says Mr. Hall. “That was before I learned how much of a threat being in jail would pose her.”

As soon as police took his mother into custody, Mr. Hall searched her car, where he found a suicide note and her various medication bottles and pills strewn about. By that time, she was being booked into the jail, which Mr. Hall immediately contacted to inform officials of his mother’s apparent suicide attempt.

“I was very clear about the danger she was in,” says Mr. Hall.

Despite the emphatic warning, Ms. Hall allegedly received no immediate medical attention.

“I know that to be true because I was able to obtain her records from the jail,” says Mr. Hall. “There’s no record of her vitals being taken at that point, or that she even talked with a nurse.”

Following his mother’s arrest and his search of her car, Mr. Hall immediately collected her medications, including both the blood pressure pills and the psychotropic drugs she’d been prescribed, and delivered them in person to the jail. According to the lawsuit, he handed them directly to a Wellpath nurse. However, it is alleged that Ms. Hall never received the vital medications.

Within days her blood pressure and heart rate began to soar, resulting in her being rushed to a local hospital for treatment. Mr. Hall attributes what’s described in the lawsuit as a “life-threatening” crisis to both a lack of blood pressure medicine and the added stress created by denying his mother the psychotropic medications sorely needed to help calm.

After her hospitalization, Ms. Hall was first released to a 10-day in-patient treatment program and then allowed to remain free on bond while awaiting trial in June 2019.

During the interim, to ensure his mother’s life would not again be imperiled by the denial of her medications, he contacted her personal physician. Anticipating that she would be convicted, Mr. Hall had the doctor write the jail, telling them exactly what medications she needed to take. The letter, says Mr. Hall, specifically pointed out that if she did not receive them, it would be detrimental to her physical and mental health.

Greg Hall. - Courtesy of Greg Hall
Courtesy of Greg Hall
Greg Hall.
He says he also had several meetings with jail officials and Wellpath personnel to discuss the medical treatment his mother would receive in the likelihood she would again be incarcerated.

“I wanted to do everything possible to ensure what happened to her the first time she was locked up didn’t happen again,” he explains.

In June, following a guilty plea, Ms. Hall was sentenced to a prison term of 14 months to 10 years and taken back into custody. Prior to her transfer to the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Washtenaw County, she was again locked up in the Grand Traverse County Jail.

“Within 30 minutes of her being booked back into the jail, she was calling me on the phone saying she was again being denied her medication,” claims Mr. Hall.

He struggles to find the right words to describe his reaction to that news.

“I guess I’d say flabbergasted,” he says. “And outraged.”

He says he immediately faxed Grand Traverse County Sheriff Thomas J. Bensley, demanding that the harmful and discriminatory policies and practices be stopped immediately. Within a day, before any further action could be taken, Ms. Hall was transferred to Huron Valley to begin serving her sentence.

Determined to force change

Determined to help make sure other prisoners unlucky to be locked up in the Grand Traverse County Jail didn’t experience the same sort life-threatening denial of care he says experienced by his mother and were forced to endure, Mr. Hall began contacting members of the Grand Traverse County Board of Commissioners and other officials to raise their level of awareness of problems at the jail and prompt them to take corrective measures.

“Initially I was assured by several of the commissioners that they would look into it,” he says. “I really wanted to work within the system and resolve things amicably. After a couple of months of being promised action and nothing happening, I decided to take the issue public.”

As a first step, he created the Facebook page “Abuse at the Grand Traverse County Jail” last September. The intent, he says, is to generate public pressure in an attempt to force officials to address what he considers to be obvious flaws with the jail’s medical care — problems with both the sheriff’s oversight as well as with Wellpath and its policies and practices.

Response to the Facebook page has been overwhelming. It is constantly being updated with posts about problems at the jail in particular, articles from elsewhere exposing other issues with Wellpath around the country, and horror stories about other for-profit companies providing health-care for incarcerated people.

Now, because he has power of attorney for his mother, he’s worked with the lawyers from Liddle & Dubin, PC as they prepared the just-filed class action lawsuit.

In a very real sense, though, Mr. Hall thinks there is a bigger picture at play here.

“This isn’t just a legal issue,” says Mr. Hall. “It is a moral issue. And it’s not just about what happened to my mom, or to Brad. It’s not just one or two people falling through the cracks. The system itself is flawed, and it needs to be changed.”

As he wrote when he launched the Facebook page:

“We must stop inmate suicides. We must stop inmates getting denied basic medical care …
People in jail deserve to ‘do the time for their crime’ but they do not deserve to be abused or killed while doing it.”

If you or someone you know was incarcerated in a Michigan County Jail and was denied psychotropic medications by Wellpath, more information is available here.

Curt Guyette is editor at large for the ACLU of Michigan.

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