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Top health care contractor at Springfield prison has long history of diverting opioids - VTDigger

Author: VTDigger

Source: https://vtdigger.org/2023/10/30/top-health-care-contractor-at-springfield-prison-has-long-history-of-diverting-opioids/

Image of Top health care contractor at Springfield prison has long history of diverting opioids - VTDigger

Louise Walker worked as director of nursing at the Springfield prison beginning in September.By Ethan Weinstein/VTDiggerThe top-ranking health care employee at Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield has faced disciplinary action in three states for diverting or wasting opioids, public records show, resulting in suspensions or revocation of his nursing license in North Carolina, New Mexico and North Dakota.Robert Stevenson has worked as the health services administrator for Vermont Department of Corrections’s private health care contractor, Wellpath, since September.According to a job description posted by Wellpath, the health services administrator in Springfield supervises health care staff and “collaborate(s) with interdisciplinary teams to maintain high-quality patient care.” The position also monitors health care services, pharmacy use and “potential catastrophic illnesses.”The job, a supervisory and administrative position, does not require a nursing license, and Stevenson does not have one.Louise Walker, who worked under Stevenson as Springfield’s director of nursing, told VTDigger she uncovered Stevenson’s disciplinary history last month through a search of public records.She said she flagged her findings to Wellpath’s human resources leader in Vermont and demanded the company’s leaders take action.Three weeks later, she said, they fired her.Vermont Department of Corrections officials declined to comment on Stevenson’s background, Walker’s claims or either’s tenure as contractors for the department, citing department policy. Wellpath did not respond to an emailed request for comment.Reached by phone, Stevenson said his disciplinary history was irrelevant to his current position.Wellpath cares for almost 300,000 incarcerated patients daily worldwide, according to its website, making it the largest for-profit health care provider in U.S.prisons.In July, it took over the Department of Corrections’s health care contract from another contractor, VitalCore. Wellpath previously held Vermont’s prison health services contract from 2010 to 2015, operating under the name Correct Care Solutions.In the last two years, the Springfield prison — Vermont’s second largest secure facility — has drawn scrutiny related to the health care services provided there.The prison, which has an on-site infirmary, serves a particularly elderly and infirm population, prison officials have said.Between January 2022 and May 2023, 12 people died at the facility.That’s a significant increase from the average of three deaths per year in Vermont’s entire prison system from 2017 to 2021, according to corrections department data. A history of disappearing fentanylLousie Walker has been a nurse for 25 years.In an interview, she recounted how her best friend, also a nurse, became incarcerated in a facility outside of Vermont.This year, he died in prison.“The health care he received was awful,” Walker said.“He died, in my opinion, as a result of neglect.”When a recruiter emailed her in July about a job at Southern State, only a month after her friend’s death, she said it felt like a sign from her friend.“I think he was pushing me to do it,” Walker said.Wellpath paid better than her job in Keene, New Hampshire, and the commute to Springfield would be shorter. She decided to pursue the position.Walker started work at Southern State on Sept.14, and met Stevenson that same day, she said.She felt her new boss was evasive about his background, Walker said.On her second day of work, she looked up his nursing license. A search for Robert William Stevenson in a nursing license database reveals a history of diverting opioids, particularly fentanyl, in North Carolina, New Mexico and North Dakota.In October 2007, while Stevenson was working as a flight nurse in North Carolina, an investigation into a separate matter found “a concerning pattern of usage/wastage of Fentanyl in the accountability records for Mr.Stevenson,” according to a final decision and order by the North Carolina Board of Nursing.A subsequent audit discovered increasing waste of fentanyl in his records between August and October of 2007.After submitting to a “for cause” drug screening, Stevenson tested positive for fentanyl, according to the decision and order.The nursing board found Stevenson had violated 10 different regulations, and ordered him to serve a probationary period, which required he remain drug- and alcohol-free and submit to random drug tests. Stevenson successfully completed the program, records show.While Stevenson was working as a traveling nurse in New Mexico in 2018, an investigation showed he had signed out a dose of fentanyl under another nurse’s credentials when no doctor had requested the medication, according to a final decision and order of revocation written by the Board of Nursing for the state of New Mexico.Stevenson did not request a hearing in the matter, and the nursing board voted unanimously to revoke his license, records show.In July 2019, North Dakota’s nursing board issued a cease-and-desist order against Stevenson preventing him from practicing nursing in the state, according to an order from the board.While working as a travel nurse in the state, Stevenson signed out five doses of intravenous fentanyl and a dose of morphine for another nurse’s patient without telling that nurse, according to an order from North Dakota’s nursing board.The patient later denied that he had received any intravenous drugs from Stevenson.A subsequent audit found that Stevenson had signed out fentanyl on 11 occasions for the patient to whom he wasn’t assigned, according to the cease-and-desist order.He refused to take a drug test, records indicate. After North Dakota’s decision, North Carolina’s nursing board decided in 2020 to suspend Stevenson’s license for a year, according to a signed order.In an interview, Stevenson acknowledged his past disciplinary record, but said it was irrelevant to his current job in Springfield, which he characterized as an administrative role.When asked about his job description, which includes the responsibility to supervise health care staff and ensure quality care, he said the job is “not telling (clinicians) what to do.It’s basically going through what they’re supposed to do.”“I have nothing to do with anything in regards to nursing, though,” he said.“I’m overseeing the stuff that’s going on on a day-to-day basis to make sure people are doing their jobs.”As an administrator without a nursing license, Stevenson said he does not have access to medications.He contended that publicizing his record would amount to “bashing a victim,” but declined to elaborate.‘A vulnerable group of people’After discovering Stevenson’s history of diverting opioids, Walker said she informed the “people operations” leader and regional director of nursing in Wellpath’s regional office in Waterbury on Sept. 21.Soon after, the company’s regional vice president became involved as well, Walker said.As time passed without a meeting, according to Walker, she issued an ultimatum: She would not work with Stevenson.Either he’d leave, or she would.On Oct. 11, Walker said, she was fired.She told VTDigger she did not receive a written explanation for her termination, but said she was told the reasons included that she was unprofessional for looking up Stevenson’s record and giving an ultimatum, and that she did not properly report her concerns.Walker said she raised her concerns because she felt her own nursing license could be at risk if she did not report what she had learned.She also said she feared for the incarcerated people in her care, who she called “a vulnerable group of people” who could be “at risk.”“Who’s going to believe an inmate,” she said, “if an inmate says ‘I didn’t get my drugs,’ and it’s documented that they did?”Walker said she feels retaliated against for raising concerns over Stevenson’s record and that she’s considering legal action.A whistleblower protection clause in the department of corrections’s contract with Wellpath states that the contractor “shall not discriminate or retaliate against one of its employees or agents for disclosing information concerning a violation of law, fraud, waste, abuse of authority or acts threatening health or safety.”VTDigger requested to speak to Al Cormier, the corrections department’s chief of operations, who is serving as acting commissioner while Nick Deml is on parental leave.The department declined the request, citing the limited information officials were at liberty to share regarding personnel matters. A subsequent request was again denied.In an email, corrections department spokesperson Haley Sommer said the department does not comment on personnel issues.“The Department maintains quality oversight and conducts regular reviews to ensure Vermonters in custody are provided with the Vermont community standard of care,” Sommer wrote.“Reviews include information from grievances and appeals, case reviews, constituency services, and communication with advocate groups and community providers.”“If deficiencies or contract compliance issues are identified,” Sommer continued, “the Contractor is obliged to create a performance improvement plan detailing a description of the deficiency, timeline for addressing the issue, list of actions to address the issue, and status of resolution.” Walker said she joined the staff at Wellpath out of the belief that “everybody has the right to quality health care.” Her choice to sound alarms served the same purpose, she argued.“It needs to change,” Walker said.“They need to take a look at this system. And if this is the only way that this is going to happen, then so be it.”

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