No need to start again on Missouri prison health contract, state tells judge as trial begins

Corizon is suing the state purchasing agency, alleging competitor Centurion lied in bid documents

By: - November 3, 2021 1:00 pm

The Cole County Courthouse in Jefferson City (Tessa Weinberg/Missouri Independent).

The company fighting in court to hold onto Missouri’s prison health care contract targets “puffery” language of little meaning to show a competitor misled the state, an assistant attorney general said Wednesday as a trial began in Jefferson City.

Corizon Health, which has held the contract since 1992, zeroed in on statements about the stability and experience of the Centurion Health team in its challenge to the bid award, assistant attorney general Craig Jacobs said.

Every bidder for every contract says something similar about the quality of its leadership, Jacobs said.

“I think we will probably be able to show in this case that there has never been a proposal submitted where the vendor said we have irresponsible and unreliable and ineffective corporate management and we would like you to provide us with that contract,” Jacobs said.

Centurion was the winning bidder among five vendors for the contract to provide healthcare for the Missouri Department of Corrections. Corizon received the second-lowest score but is the only one of the five to protest the award.

The protest and lawsuit has delayed the July 1 transition from Corizon to Centurion. It is now set for Nov. 14 if Cole County Circuit Judge Daniel Green rules against Corizon in the trial that is expected to conclude by Thursday afternoon.

In her opening statement for Corizon, attorney Jennifer Griffin said the proposal from Centurion was riddled with false or misleading statements. The only remedy, she said, was for Green to order the state to start over by seeking new proposals and excluding Centurion from participating.

“The false and misleading information in Centurion’s proposal, including the (best and final offer), corrupted its entire bid and should have resulted in disqualification in Missouri,” she said.

Centurion Health is a Virginia subsidiary of St. Louis-based managed care company Centene. Under the Missouri contract, it would be paid $1.4 billion to care for the state’s approximately 23,000 inmates if the contract runs for the full seven year term.

The challenge from Corizon arose from material uncovered in Tennessee, where Centurion also bested Corizon for a behavioral health services contract in that state’s prisons. Corizon sued Centurion in federal court and found emails from Wesley Landers, the chief financial officer for the Tennessee Department of Corrections, to Jeff Wells, a vice president of Centurion, providing internal documents about the contract.

Landers was hired by Centurion, but after discovery of the communication, the company fired both Landers and Wells.

Tennessee announced in May that it would seek new bids for the contract.

Wells was touted in the Missouri bid as a key member of the Centurion team. The company failed to disclose he had been fired, or that it would likely lose the Tennessee contract, to the state Purchasing Division, Griffin told Green.

“He was a crook who personally engaged in improper communications with a corrupt Tennessee official in violation of the Tennessee procurement process and he rewarded that official, Wes Landers, with a job at Centurion,” Griffin said.

Griffin is incorrect about the impact of the Tennessee revelations on the Missouri contract, Jacobs said.

The state allows vendors to substitute key personnel during the life of a contract, he said. People die, retire and change jobs, he noted.

“There is no way to prevent their staff from changing for 100 different reasons,” Jacobs said.

As the vendor who received the second-lowest score, Corizon will not be the vendor for the new contract period if it prevails, he said.

“Even if they get everything they want in this case they are still not going to get the award of this contract,” Jacobs said.”

Centurion’s attorney, Chuck Hatfield, said that while the communication between Landers and Wells was improper, it had no impact on the Tennessee contract award.

“There were no violations of the law, no evidence that anything was done with information that was improper,” Hatfield said, “but they believe Mr. Wells should have told Mr. Landers to stop it, so they fired him.”

Centurion is currently providing the behavioral health services in Tennessee while the contract is being rebid and the company has not been barred from participating, he said.

“I think my client is going to win that bid and it will be a no-harm, no-foul situation,” Hatfield said.

Hatfield suggested that one goal for Corizon in the lawsuit is to obtain the $8 million it is seeking from the state for increased costs associated with treating prisoners who have COVID-19. The state has denied that request, he said, making a counteroffer of $4.2 million that Corizon has turned down.

Corizon is trying to portray Centurion as crooked but that case won’t hold up, Hatfield said.

The state, he said, is satisfied with the bids and the resulting contract.

“What we have is Corizon trying to make a fraud case,” Hatfield said. “They say somebody was defrauded and the person whom they say was defrauded says they weren’t defrauded.”

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Rudi Keller
Rudi Keller

Rudi Keller covers the state budget and the legislature. A graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, he spent 22 of his 32 years in journalism covering Missouri government and politics for the Columbia Daily Tribune, where he won awards for spot news and investigative reporting.