Southern Illinois University School of Medicine will provide health care at two state prisons in a test that could expand statewide and which could provide answers for a troubled, $180 million-a-year medical program for 40,000 inmates, officials said Monday.
SIU aims to have medical teams by summer at prisons in Lincoln and Pinckneyville and to add teams next year at two more lockups in what dean and provost Jerry Kruse said is in keeping with the school’s mission as well as an economic expansion opportunity.
“We plan to make a go with this long-term. We’re pretty confident of success,” said Kruse, adding that he believes the efficiencies the school can bring to bear can save money.
The Illinois Department of Corrections said it’s eager to see SIU’s impact. But It’s unclear how possible future expansion would affect Corrections’ private-vendor contract with Pittsburgh-based Wexford Health Sources, whose 10-year, $1.4 billion deal expires next year.
Critics have complained of staffing shortages and inadequate care. Among inmate lawsuits, a federal jury in December awarded an Illinois man $11 million in damages from Wexford for not diagnosing nor treating his kidney cancer quickly enough. Wexford is appealing the decision. Messages left Monday seeking comment from Wexford were not returned.
Dawn Defraties, executive director of SIU’s Office of Correctional Medicine, which was set up exclusively to administer the prison project, said part of the job will be to review current practices and suggest improvements.
“Our expertise is quality healthcare. We know how clinics run. We know what is needed to provide that healthcare,” said Defraties, whose first task when hired was to conduct a $250,000 feasibility study on the idea.
“We bring fresh eyes,” Defraties said. “We have never been part of the current system and so there’s some benefit to having someone with completely fresh eyes and perspectives looking at any type of organization.”
Such an arrangement is not novel. The University of Texas Medical Branch, for example, has provided health care to the bulk of Lone Star State prison inmates since 1994.
The program’s $5 million first phase is scheduled to begin this summer with an OB-GYN physician and women’s health care team at Logan Correctional Center, a women’s prison in Lincoln, along with a physician and advanced practitioner at the prison in Pinckneyville. Defraties plans for a second phase in early 2021, with medical teams at the Shawnee and Vienna correctional centers, both located in southern Illinois.
In a prepared statement, Corrections Director Rob Jeffreys said he welcomes “a new approach.”
“SIU School of Medicine has a reputation for quality medical care and innovation,” Jeffreys said. “This new partnership gives us the opportunity to explore a different health care model, one that’s more patient-centered and outcome-based.”
SIU’s mission — to “optimize the health” of its constituents through education, patient care and community service — make it a good fit for the prison task, Kruse said.
It operates community health clinics that serve as one-stop medical homes and provide assistance to low-income and uninsured patients. It has an advantage in recruiting medical staff because it can provide the professional needs and continuing education employees need. Its experience with community health programs will help inmates transition from prison to home, ensuring they make proper health care links. And eventually, medical school residents will make health care rounds at the prisons in the program.
“Our history always has been one of social accountability,” Kruse said, “so we’ll do what’s best for the people of Illinois.”