‘Crisis’ in Utah prisons as ‘systemwide’ glitch causes inmates to miss medications, officials say

The Utah Department of Corrections is scrambling to fill prescriptions, officials said.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) A two-person cell in a general population housing block at the new Utah State Correctional Facility in Salt Lake City, Wednesday, June 22, 2022. Utah’s two state prisons are in the midst of a “crisis” after the rollout of a new medical records system resulted in inmates missing medication refills, officials said.

Utah’s two state prisons are in the midst of a “crisis” after the rollout of a new medical records system this month resulted in inmates missing medication refills, officials announced Wednesday.

The new system, operated by a contracted vendor called Fusion, was launched Aug. 1, officials said. “Within a matter of days, it became apparent that there were some problems,” according to a news release.

The scope of the “systemwide health data migration issue” caused by an apparent technical glitch is “still being uncovered,” the release states. Details on what may have caused the glitch — which left the Utah Department of Corrections scrambling to fill a backlog of prescriptions — were not immediately released.

At a news briefing Thursday afternoon, executive director Brian Nielson said the queue of unfilled prescriptions stood at about 4,400 as of that morning. He said officials were “within days of having a more normal operation.”

But Nielson didn’t specify how many total prescriptions had gone unfilled since the issue arose, nor did he state how many inmates were still waiting to receive their medications — and how long those inmates had gone without them.

The governor’s office and the Utah Department of Health and Human Services have stepped in to help rectify the problem with assistance from local pharmacies, prison officials said.

What kinds of medication refills have been missed?

Meanwhile, hundreds of inmates at the Utah State Correctional Facility west of Salt Lake City and the Central Utah Correctional Facility in Gunnison apparently still haven’t received their medications, said Wendy Parmley, director of medical and mental health policy for the Utah Prisoner Advocate Network.

Parmley told The Salt Lake Tribune that, according to reports from inmates and relatives, the kinds of prescriptions that patients in prison have been missing include heart and blood pressure medication, cancer medication, HIV medication, anti-seizure medications, pain medication, insulin, antibiotics and antipsychotics.

Dawn Gronowski’s incarcerated son has schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. She said he hasn’t had his medications for a few weeks, since he was moved from Gunnison to the new prison.

“My fear is he’s going to mentally go manic and pick up additional charges because he was not able to control his mental illness due to not having medication,” Gronowski said.

One man incarcerated at the Gunnison facility went approximately 30 days without his blood pressure medication, according to his sister, Glenette Pierce.

Nielson said medical staff are seeing “hundreds” of patients a day, and that “if a family member has a concern, please reach out to us.”

“We have established processes in place and we react very, very quickly,” he said.

According to a statement, the Department of Corrections “recognizes the severity of the crisis at hand and will continue to be transparent and accountable to repair the issues and restore confidence that all incarcerated individuals will reliably receive their medications in a timely and accurate manner.”

Prison has a ‘paramount duty’ to provide meds, ACLU says

Prisons house “some of the most medically vulnerable people in our communities,” the American Civil Liberties Union said in a statement Wednesday, categorizing the ordeal as a “medical crisis.”

“The United States Supreme Court has repeatedly made clear that, under our federal Constitution, prisons have a paramount duty to provide necessary medical, mental health, and dental care to incarcerated persons,” the ACLU statement read.

Utah prison staff typically fill about 750 to 1,000 prescriptions a day. Officials said staff filled 2,000 prescriptions on Monday alone as they work to clear the backlog.

The Utah Department of Health and Human Services has provided four pharmacists, five pharmacy technicians and more than 20 other medical representatives to assist as the prison system works to confirm the accuracy of patient prescriptions.

The Utah Division of Technology Services also is assisting software developers in auditing data and “digging into technical details.” A request for comment from Fusion was not immediately returned.

Nielson said Thursday that the Utah Department of Corrections anticipates future success with Fusion and gave no indication that the department would move to stop working with the contracted vendor. Throughout the glitch, “they have been at the table and been part of the solutions,” he said, adding that it would be “very, very difficult” to go back to the old system.

The new Utah prison was completed in June, and more than 2,400 incarcerated individuals were transferred there in July. The 200-acre facility is located 5 miles west of the Salt Lake City Airport. Prison officials previously said the new prison would include “better and greater access to medical care and resources.”

Once the issues with the new medical record system are “ironed out,” the system will provide “vast systemic improvements and successfully phase out an antiquated database,” officials said in a statement.

If an incarcerated individual has a medical concern or needs to have a prescription filled, they can submit a health care request form, which are available in housing units, prison officials advised. If an inmate has an urgent medical concern, they should notify the officer in their housing section.

Anyone concerned that their incarcerated loved one is not receiving the medication they need may contact the Utah Department of Corrections at 801-545-5505.