MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — A company selected to provide health care for Alabama's prison system is being sued by the state of Mississippi for its alleged role in a long-running bribery scheme.
The Alabama Department of Corrections said it picked the Pennsylvania-based Wexford Health Sources Inc. to provide medical care in state prisons, and contract negotiations should be complete by February. Commissioner Jeff Dunn said the company, one of four to submit proposals, was picked "based on a combination of quality of care and overall cost."
But Wexford is among a dozen companies sued by the state of Mississippi in February for allegedly using consultants to pay bribes and kickbacks to then-Mississippi prison commissioner Chris Epps, who sentenced to almost 20 years in prison in May in a bribery scheme.
The Alabama Department of Corrections said it was aware of the allegations in the lawsuit and is sticking by the selection of the company.
"Wexford Health has not been accused of any wronging and the department is confident the review committee selected the right company for the health care contract," said a statement by prison spokesman Bob Horton.
In a statement from marketing director Wendelyn Pekich, the Pittsburgh-based Wexford said it didn't know anything about Epps' crimes or the actions of a one-time consultant it hired in Mississippi. The company said it didn't do anything wrong and was "ensnared" in the state's lawsuit only because it had employed a consultant mentioned in the criminal investigation.
"We were never accused of doing anything wrong or inappropriate," said the company, which provides prison medical care in more than a dozen states, Alabama prison officials said.
Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, told the Decatur Daily he heard about the Mississippi lawsuit recently, and that large companies operating in multiple states often are sued. The three other companies competing for the contract "also had knocks against them," said Ward, who chairs a prison oversight committee.
Questions about Wexford "will be on top of the agenda when we meet next month," Ward said. He said he was encouraging Alabama prison officials to "move slowly" because of the massive size of the contract.
The Mississippi lawsuits allege major prison contractors paid millions of dollars in fees to consultants who, in turn, used the money to pay off Epps. Because of the bribes, Epps awarded about $800 million in contracts to the companies, the state alleged.
Epps acknowledged accepting more than $1.4 million in bribes from private contractors, and eight other people have been convicted in the scheme.
The new, three-year health care contract for 28 Alabama prisons will take effect April 1. A previous two-year contract with another company was worth $180 million.
The new contract is supposed to increase staffing in correctional facilities by about 25 percent for both medical and mental health care services, the state said.