Executives at an embattled private correctional healthcare services company that has been the subject of more than 70 wrongful death lawsuits contributed $11,400 to Amy Kennedy’s campaign for the Democratic nomination for Congress in New Jersey’s 2nd district around the time the candidate’s husband joined the board of directors.
Brigid Callahan Harrison, Kennedy’s chief primary rival, wants Kennedy to return campaign contributions connected to Wellpath, which has faced hundreds of other suits alleging insufficient or untimely care related to healthcare services it provides to corrections facilities around the country.
“We are in the middle of a pandemic and Amy Kennedy is lining her campaign coffers with money generated by ripping off the government and providing horrible health care,” said Harrison. This is no time to be in bed with executives who put their profits over the people.”
Harrison wants Kennedy to “sever herself from the relationships she has created immediately.”
“I call on Amy to publicly explain why she accepted bundled money from a company like Wellpath, provide information on her husband’s relationship with the company, and return these funds immediately,” she said.
Many of the lawsuits against Wellpath, formerly known as Correct Care Solutions, were filed before Kennedy’s husband, former Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy (D-Rhode Island), became a board member in February.
Wellpath is a for-profit corporation that provides healthcare services to 100 state and federal prisons and nearly 400 local jails, including those that serve U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers.
According to Wellpath, citing the massive number of lawsuits filed against the company is an unfair measurement.
“Any person may file a lawsuit, especially in a restricted environment such as a jail or prison,” the company said on its website. “While we cannot comment on open litigation, we can put the overall litigation volume into context: Only about 7 percent of the lawsuits filed against Wellpath have resulted in a payment of any kind, on average in any given year. Wellpath has approximately one claim involving a payment for every 100,000 patients.”
The company says it provided healthcare to “more than three million patient sick calls in 2018, a higher number of visits than a national leader of retail health clinics.”
In a press release announcing Patrick Kennedy’s election to the Board of Directors, Kennedy said that “Wellpath’s expertise, quality of care, and dedication to comprehensive behavioral health care sets them apart when it comes to improving patient outcomes.”
Among the donors to Amy Kennedy was Wellpath CEO Jorge Dominicis.
Amy Kennedy’s campaign responded to the attack with one of its own, claiming Harrison was attempting to draw focus away from her own fundraising challenges.
“We understand that Brigid is desperate to deflect attention from her flailing campaign, but this is below the belt,” Kennedy campaign manager Josh Roesch said. “It’s especially sad she’s chosen to play attack dog politics while people’s lives are at stake, in a pandemic.”
Harrison raised $258,345.26 during the year’s first quarter, with $100,000 of those funds coming from a personal loan. Kennedy raised $566,253 on top of a $250,000 loan she took out for the campaign.
The chasm between the two candidates’ fundraising does little to change Wellpath’s poor track record.
Though the firm has been subject to more than 1,000 lawsuits, only one of the cases — a suit over the 2010 death of Amit Bornstein — was filed in New Jersey.
Bornstein’s estate sued Monmouth County and Correct Care Solutions, which would later become Wellpath, alleging the healthcare provider did not provide sufficient care after Bornstein was beaten in custody, but the company was dropped from the suit after U.S. District Court Judge Anne Thompson ruled the plaintiffs did not do enough to prove the company was negligent in treating the deceased.
Monmouth County Corrections swapped healthcare providers in November 2017 and has not conducted any business with Wellpath or its subsidiaries in the time since.
Wellpath still provides healthcare services for the Hudson County Correctional Center in Kearny, where at least one nurse employed by Wellpath has died after contracting COVID-19.
A U.S. Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General report in September 2019 slammed Wellpath for improper billing practices for their $65 million contract to run the Federal Correction Complex in Coleman, Florida.
In a scathing letter to ICE acting director Ronald Vitello in late 2018, U.S. Senator Kamala Harris and 23 House members from California complained about the quality of health services offered to detainees by Wellpath at ICE detention centers in their state.
Past misdeeds and any missteps the provider makes during the pandemic likely won’t do much to affect the outcome of the race, said Ben Dworkin, director of Rowan University’s Institute for Public Policy & Citizenship.
The focus, Dworkin said, will likely remain on the role Democratic County organizations have played in the race.
“You have an organizational-anti-organizational narrative that I think is a much stronger motivating force for voters in this primary election than this particular item,” he said. “I think it’ll be an issue, but I don’t think it’ll be a determining issue.”
Democratic chairs from six of the second congressional district’s eight counties endorsed Harrison shortly after she announced her bid against Rep. Jeff Van Drew (R-Dennis) after he switched parties last year.
Atlantic County Democratic Chairman Michael Suleiman and Ocean County Democratic Chairman Wyatt Earp held off.
Earp has since announced that Ocean County will hold an open primary for the second district seat, while Atlantic County’s Democratic Committee voted to award Kennedy the line in March.
U.S. Senator Cory Booker has eschewed the organization line in Atlantic and Ocean and instead will bracket with Harrison.
In an apparent effort to turn voters’ eyes away from the political maneuvering that turned Harrison into one of the primary’s two top candidates, the political science professor likened Kennedy’s acceptance of the donations to Van Drew’s defection.
“By choosing campaign cash from a scandal-ridden privatized health service provider that puts corporate greed over proper patient care, Amy Kennedy’s is no different than Jeff Van Drew — they both go where ever the big money is, no matter the cost,” Harrison said. “Choosing to take thousands of bundled dollars from an immoral health care company, especially during this uncharted moment in our history, is not only tone deaf, but it demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding about the struggles we all face regarding health care quality and access.”
It’s not clear how effective the attack over the $11,400 donated by eight Wellpath executives would be even if it did distract from the politicking that has defined the contest for the Democratic nomination, Dworkin said.
Neither Amy Kennedy nor her husband controlled Wellpath or Correct Care Solutions during the incidents that have checkered its past, and Patrick Kennedy’s joining the board is easily explained away,
“I would assume Patrick Kennedy would say ‘I got on the board to make sure they do better,’” Dworkin said.
If that doesn’t work, the solution is even simpler.
“If it becomes a big thing, you return the money,” Dworkin said. “But New Jersey voters are plenty cynical already, so I don’t think these kinds of stories really change minds so much.”