BOISE, Idaho (AP) -- The Idaho Board of Correction will extend the state's contract with prison medical care company Corizon for at least one year.
Board members made the decision Tuesday afternoon. Corizon's contract was set to expire this July, but the board decided to exercise a one-year extension option, keeping Corizon on as the contractor providing medical and mental health care to all but one of Idaho's prisons at least through mid-2014.
That means the state won't begin looking at other companies interested in taking over the contract until January, when the Idaho Department of Correction will issue a formal request for proposals.
Corizon has a troubled past in Idaho: The Department of Correction has fined the company more than $200,000 for failing to meet basic contract requirements, and an expert appointed by the federal courts found last year that Corizon's medical care was so poor that it amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.
The Idaho Department of Correction took the first step toward a formal bid process last year when it asked companies interested in the contract to provide information about how they would do the job. Besides Corizon, four other companies responded: NaphCare, Wexford Health, MTC Medical and MHM Correctional Services.
All five of the companies said they could improve the medical care given to Idaho's inmates, but only two gave cost estimates — NaphCare said it would charge between $12.80 and $14.40 per inmate, per day, and Corizon said it would charge between $14.25 and $14.75 per inmate per day.
The quality of medical care at the state's prisons has been an ongoing issue for the state, especially at the Idaho State Correctional Institution South of Boise.
That prison was the focus of a class-action lawsuit brought by inmates against the state in federal court more than three decades ago alleging a variety of problems including poor medical care. The lawsuit, which is still in the federal courts, became known as the Balla case after one of the original inmates, Walter Balla.
Though the Balla case began long before Corizon came to Idaho, complaints about medical care have continued, and the prison remains under the watchful eye of a federal judge.
A special expert appointed by a judge to examine medical care at the prison in 2010 reported that some aspects of the health care were deplorable. The expert, Dr. Marc Stern, said that terminal and long-term inmates sometimes went unfed or were left in soiled bedclothes, that nursing mistakes likely resulted in deaths, and that one inmate wasn't told for seven months that he likely had cancer.
Corizon responded by contending that Stern's report didn't accurately reflect current conditions. The company commissioned its own review that found that medical care at the prison met national standards.
Nevertheless, the state reached a settlement agreement — called the "Balla settlement" — with inmates that called for increased medical staffing and other major changes to the way medical and mental health care is provided at the prison.
All of the companies that responded to the state's request for information said they would be able to fulfill the requirements of the Balla settlement.
One of the attorneys representing the inmates, Jason Prince with the firm Stoel Rives, told The Associated Press in January that from a legal perspective, it doesn't matter which company gets the contract because the settlement is with the state, and the Idaho Department of Correction's responsibility to ensure the terms are met.
"Plaintiffs basically leave it to IDOC to determine which contractor to use, so long as they're complying with the Balla injunctive relief," Prince said.
During Tuesday's board meeting, IDOC staffers told the board members that problems with Corizon continue, but conditions have improved.
"They've gotten a lot better," IDOC Business Support Manager Natalie Warner said. "... Right now we've got some issues with them not providing us timely staffing data."
Corizon seems to frequently fail the department's staffing audits, Warner said, but the company has improved other areas enough that IDOC is rarely issuing fines for failing to meet contract standards.
Extending the company's contract for one year would give the state more time to focus on the Balla settlement and allow the state to get a better understanding of changes expected under the Health Care Reform Act, Warner said. That, in turn, will allow IDOC to solicit better bids in 2014, she said.
Board Chairman Robin Sandy said she saw the point of keeping things consistent under the Balla settlement, but she felt that "in good faith for our taxpayers we need to put it out there for an RFP." Analyzing the responses to requests for proposals takes about six months, she noted, and so January of 2014 would be the most logical date for that process to begin.