Whistleblower claims Westmoreland prison inmates lack sufficient mental health treatment

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Aug. 28—A former behavioral health clinician claims inmates at Westmoreland County Prison received substandard mental health care and that she was fired when she reported her allegations to the facility's private medical provider.

In a whistleblower lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh, Carla Rhodes, a licensed social worker, says she was retaliated against after making allegations of fraud, waste and insufficient medical care.

Rhodes claims her employer, PrimeCare Medical Inc. of Harrisburg, relied upon an unlicensed mental health professional to diagnose and prescribe treatments for inmates as part of what she described as sporadic remote meetings with patients, resulting in insufficient and improper care.

"Instead of taking action to remedy the serious patient safety and compliance issues Ms. Rhodes identified, PrimeCare Medical chose to terminate her employment in retaliation for her good-faith reports," she claims in the lawsuit.

Rhodes said she was hired as mental health clinician in August 2022. PrimeCare Medical started work at the county jail in September. Commissioners a month earlier inked a five-year, $20.9 million deal with the company to provide medical services at the jail, with a focus on improved mental health care for inmates.

Rhodes, in her lawsuit, says she was at times the only mental health clinician on duty at the jail and that the company relied on a rotation of other "mid-level" providers to assess and treat inmates remotely, including a nurse practitioner from Texas who was not licensed to practice in Pennsylvania.

According to the court filing, Rhodes claimed at least one inmate suffered an allergic reaction to medication that was improperly prescribed.

She said she was fired in April after reporting her concerns to company officials.

Colleen Ehrsman, associate corporate counsel for PrimeCare Medical, declined to comment on the allegations in the lawsuit.

Rhodes is seeking unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.

Westmoreland County was not named as a defendant in the case, and county commissioners said they were unaware of the court filing.

Warden Bryan Kline, during a public meeting of the county's prison board Monday, praised PrimeCare Medical for its care of inmates.

"PrimeCare is doing a great job with the mental health treatment," Kline said.

For years, county leaders have struggled to provide adequate mental health care for inmates. During prison board meetings over the previous years, Kline reported that at one time more than half of the jail's inmates were prescribed medication for mental health conditions.

As of Monday, that number had has fallen to just 9%, Kline said. He said 49 of the 525 inmates at the jail are prescribed psychotropic medications. Prior to PrimeCare's work at the jail, as many as 400 inmates were prescribed medications for mental health issues, he said.

Commissioners said they will investigate the allegations in the lawsuit.

"I expect PrimeCare to live up to the conditions they agreed to," Commissioner Ted Kopas said.

Meanwhile, mental health care for inmates continues to be a focus, according to county officials.

The prison board unanimously renewed the county's participation in a national program that tracks mental health needs in jails. Kline said the jail will work with the county's behavior health department to report inmate needs and treatments to help define future levels of care.

"We just want to see where we need additional resources," Kline said.

Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Rich by email at rcholodofsky@triblive.com or via Twitter .