House Passes Schwartzkopf Bill Overhauling Prison Healthcare Review Committee

DOVER – Legislation designed to increase the independence, and strengthen and expand the responsibilities of a prison healthcare review committee won unanimous approval in the House on Tuesday.

Sponsored by Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf, House Bill 173 would place the Adult Correction Healthcare Review Committee within the Criminal Justice Council and add the chairs of the House and Senate Corrections Committees and the Chief of the Bureau of Correctional Healthcare Services as non-voting members of the panel.

By housing the committee within the CJC, the council would provide staffing and resources to better meet its statutory requirements. The committee currently is tied to the Department of Correction, which could present a conflict with its mission.

The Adult Correction Healthcare Review Committee was established in 2008 and consists of a licensed physician, psychiatrist, psychologist, registered nurse, member of the Delaware Bar and an expert in the substance abuse treatment field. The group is charged with reviewing deceased inmates’ medical records and various healthcare-related reports and services, and advise on matters relating to adult inmate healthcare.

“The committee grew out of serious concerns about healthcare being provided to inmates in our prisons, but we’ve seen many of those issues continue to resurface. We’ve seen the allegations of problems in our correctional facilities, and we have an obligation to address these concerns,” said Rep. Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach.

“By taking these steps to strengthen the committee, expand its responsibilities, provide it with more resources and give it more independence, we will help them achieve their mission and advise the governor and General Assembly on issues they identify and recommended improvements. Our goal is to provide better healthcare for our inmates, the vast majority of whom will be released and rejoin society at some point in their lives.”

Under HB 173, the following information must be provided to the committee at its request:  autopsy reports of inmates who have died while incarcerated; evaluations performed by the Delaware Psychiatric Center of an inmate; inmate medical services records; and records of a contractor providing medical services to an inmate under the direction of the Department of Correction.

“When we incarcerate someone, it becomes our responsibility to ensure they have adequate healthcare,” said Senate President Pro Tempore David McBride, D-Hawk’s Nest, the bill’s chief Senate sponsor. “That’s a responsibility I take very seriously and I’ve been very troubled by some of the reports I’ve read about the quality of care currently being provided. That’s why I believe this measure is critical to make certain there is proper oversight and review in place so we can make sure we’re meeting a quality standard of care.”

HB 173 would make it clear that certain state agencies and medical service contractors must provide information the committee requests. It also requires the committee to advise the governor and General Assembly in addition to the currently mandated Department of Correction commissioner.

By having the chairs of the House and Senate Corrections Committees serve on the panel, the committee would effectively have the ability to subpoena information it is not receiving, as the chairs could bring these requests to the House Speaker or Senate President Pro Tempore to enforce the requirement.

“Passing this bill is a huge step forward in giving the committee the ability to do its job and ensure we are providing quality healthcare to inmates,” said Rep. Melissa Minor-Brown, D-New Castle South, the House Corrections Committee chair. “About 90% of inmates will be released, and we want to ensure that they are properly cared for and ready and able to re-enter society. I am looking forward to serving on the committee when the bill is fully passed and signed into law.”

HB 173 now goes to the Senate for consideration.