Sen. Kane: $100 M State Contracts Must Be Vetted by a Competitive Process

December 15, 2011

Article as it appeared in the Hartford Courant on December 14, 2011

Another UConn Prison-Health Worker Files Lawsuit

By JOSH KOVNER, [email protected]
The Hartford Courant
5:52 p.m. EST, December 14, 2011

An eighth employee of the UConn Health Center’s correctional healthcare division has sued the center, alleging a pattern of workplace discrimination and retaliation by bosses, a central theme in six of the seven previous federal lawsuits.

The parade of lawsuits has fueled criticism from some legislators over the health center’s $100 million, no-bid agreement to provide mental-health services and medical care to the prison system. In addition to the workplace issues, there have been concerns over excessive overtime costs and a lack of efficiency.

In the latest lawsuit, veteran nurse clinician Lee Siuzdak charges that her bosses were angry with her after she took two approved family medical leaves, one to care for her dying mother, and the other to address her own mental health issues after her mother’s death.

When she came back to work, her supervisors, after learning for the first time of her personal mental-health issues, took away her nursing duties and ordered her to sit in the infirmary and watch another nurse a computer or stand in a small medical room and observe two other people work, the lawsuit charges.

Siuzdak told The Courant that she has been in treatment for a mental-health condition for much of her life and that she functions well in the workplace with minor accommodations.

Lawyer Thomas Bucci of Bridgeport argues in the lawsuit that when Siuzdak’s bosses stripped her of her duties, they were in violation of federal court decrees and orders requiring that mental-health staffing be provided on second shift in prison facilities.

In October, Siuzdak applied for a vacant position of advanced nurse practitioner. Though she had the required schooling, training, and experience, she was denied the job, she says in the lawsuit.

The health center on Wednesday did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the latest lawsuit.

Dr. Robert Trestman, head of the center’s correctional healthcare division, told The Courant in October that the prison health care field is extraordinarily challenging and demanding. Recognizing this, Trestman said, UConn has frequently sent supervisors for added training, with a focus on “changes in management approaches.”

“While it is inappropriate to discuss pending litigation or investigations, I want to take this opportunity to reaffirm our commitment to a safe, respectful and supportive working environment at Correctional Managed Health Care,” Trestman said Wednesday. “The public should continue to have every confidence in the quality of care delivered through CMHC, as well as the program’s transparency.”

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s administration has decided to maintain the no-bid agreement between the health center and the Department of Correction.

In the 15 years since the health center took on the prison services, the arrangement has never been subject to competition from private correctional healthcare companies, or public-private partnerships.

Mark Ojakian, deputy secretary of the Office of Policy and Management, reported that the administration was loathe to turn over the operation to a private, for-profit company.

In a letter in November to state Sen. Rob Kane and state Rep. Brian Hurlburt, Ojakian mentioned the poor track record of some of those private companies and added: “We also believe that we need to give our hard-working and dedicated state employees an opportunity to make the improvements necessary to provide a more cost-effective and efficient program before considering altering the relationship…”

Ojakian wrote that a senior-level working group has been formed “to further examine” the delivery of correctional health services, look for cost-saving measures, and consider “the possibility of collaboration with other service providers.”

Kane, R-Watertown, said Wednesday that the main problem is a lack of transparency and accountability.

“Without transparency, you’re going to see more of the workplace issues that are coming up. The way you get to transparency is an open-bidding process.”

Kane said he’s not necessarily pushing for a private company to take over the service. In fact, he said he would welcome a bid from the UConn Health Center, and said the center might very well win in the end. He said the point is that $100 million state contracts need to be vetted by a competitive process.

The seven previous lawsuits allege a hostile workplace, sexual harassment, retaliation by bosses, or racial discrimination.

A ninth lawsuit is on the way. A supervisory social worker at the women’s prison in Niantic is waiting for a release from the U.S. Department of Justice to file her complaint of retaliation in federal court.