The New Mexico Corrections Department has paid a whistleblower $1.4 million to settle a case, according to an October 15 article from The Santa Fe New Mexican.
Dr. Bianca McDermott worked at the Corrections Department as the behavioral health bureau chief “for 13 years before she was fired in 2016 over a personnel dispute, which she said was retaliation for raising concerns about the quality of the medical care being provided to prisoners,” according to the article.
During her employment at the department, McDermott “had seen firsthand poor care being provided by Corizon Correctional Health Care, then known as CMS, and she began alerting corrections officials about the problems as early as 2009 following the unusually high number of inmate deaths the year before,” according to the article. McDermott filed a whistleblower lawsuit in 2017, claiming she was terminated “for reporting the department was not auditing the performance of the health care provider to which it paid tens of millions of dollars each year to deliver inmate care.”
The department subsequently hired a private attorney and paid them “about $270,000 to fight the case,” the article states. In September of 2019, a judge “ruled that not only had the Corrections Department retaliated against McDermott for reporting the problem, but the department had willfully and intentionally concealed evidence in the case, including its own 2014 report that corroborated her complaints,” according to the article. The New Mexican made a public records request and obtained the judge’s report, which read: “Dr. McDermott’s complaints that the audits were required and were not being conducted were in fact valid complaints…The audits were supposed to be conducted to ensure that inmates were receiving adequate health care.”
The department paid McDermott $1.4 million “to drop her complaint” in March, but the article states that details of the settlement were not released publicly until October 13.
“My case is a perfect example of why whistleblowers need to be protected,” Bianca McDermott told The New Mexican. “But the biggest tragedy in my eyes is that nothing really has changed.”
“Our agency does not tolerate retaliation of any kind, and our leadership understands the importance of transparency,” wrote Eric Harrison, the spokesperson for the Corrections Department, in an email on October 14. Harrison claims that the decisions regarding McDermott’s lawsuit were all made by the previous administration; however, The New Mexican obtained records that “more than half the roughly $270,000 the state agency spent fighting the case was expended” after a new Secretary began working there in May of 2019.
In 2016, the department replaced Corizon, the former inmate care provider, with a different vendor. That vendor was then replaced with a third vendor in 2019.
“The Corrections Department just keeps changing vendors,” McDermott said, according to the article. “All of the private prison care vendors are for-profit companies. All of them have lost contracts and been kicked out of states for poor services. The only way to improve the quality of medical care for our prison inmates is to audit the medical vendor, even state law requires it. Otherwise, all you have is a continuing lack of services for prison inmate and basically millions of dollars being misspent by the Corrections Department on vendors that are not following their contractual obligations.”
Although McDermott said that the department “audits the medical care vendor’s performance once every fiscal year,” according to The New Mexican, numerous inmates have filed and continue to file lawsuits “alleging denied, delayed or poor medical care.” McDermott worries that “the majority of inmates in the state prison system are Hispanics and Native Americans, who historically have been marginalized.”
“At a time when we are talking so much about systemic racism and social justice, it’s ironic that this particular population is being ignored,” McDermott said.