Georgia may privatize prison pharmacies; workers fear layoffs

Georgia State Prison outside of Reidsville is the state’s main maximum security facility.

Georgia State Prison outside of Reidsville is the state’s main maximum security facility.

The Georgia Department of Corrections is considering privatizing the state’s prison pharmacy services, a potentially significant change to the way health care is delivered for the state’s 53,000 inmates.

The agency is seeking bids to effectively replace the current pharmacy services department, which is administered by a partnership with Augusta University, according to documents the state released to entice potential bidders. The university provides health care for inmates through a contract with the state. The pharmacy branch of the operation has roughly 60 employees spread around the state’s 34 prisons and special facilities.

“We’re all scared,” said one pharmacy employee who asked not to be named for fear of retribution. “You’ve worked so hard for something and stayed here to retire, and now you have to worry about looking for a new job. My anxiety has been up since I found out.”

Workers fear trouble finding new jobs especially around far flung prisons where the facility is the region’s chief employer. They also complain they’ve been kept in the dark about what the higher ups are planning.

In a statement, the Department of Corrections said in response, “The GDC does not comment on active/open procurement.”

In a January presentation before state lawmakers, state prison Commissioner Timothy Ward said he was looking for ways to lower costs for inmate health care generally.

Because any bids that may be received are sealed, only a small number of officials will have access to them to see what the companies offer until the Department of Corrections chooses a winner. The agency also could review the bids and determine it’s best to stay with Augusta University.

The prison pharmacy services doles out 106,000 prescriptions a year to inmates, according to Ward’s presentation. The cost averages about $48 million a year, according to Augusta University.

For years, Augusta University has helped the prison system get slashed prices on drugs for sexually transmitted diseases through the federal 340B program, a program not available to private companies.

“Having access to 340B discounts,” said Emory University epidemiology associate professor Anne Spaulding, ”is a very important mechanism for correctional systems to keep pharmaceutical costs down. Price mark-ups can be steep.”

For example, the program can reduce the price for hepatitis C medications by several thousands of dollars for each course of treatment.

But as of a few years ago, prisons no longer need to go through a hospital to take advantage of the program. A system can instead enroll itself in 340B, clearing the way for potentially cost-effective partnerships with private companies.

The potential move comes amid concerns about how the Department of Corrections is handling COVID-19. A study by the Centers for Disease Control said Georgia prison officials weren’t testing enough, leading to numerous missed cases and a flailing response plan. Julia “Judy” Hendricks, who until recently led medical services at southwest Georgia’s Autry State Prison, said her push for more testing recently led to her being pushed out of her job at Augusta University.

Her boss Page Fletcher, who regional health services administrator for Augusta University’s Department of Correctional Healthcare, then retired a year early, partly because of how Hendricks was treated.