Ventura County and Wellpath face federal charges

The County of Ventura and Wellpath, a company that provides health care to inmates, is facing a federal lawsuit filed by relatives over the death of Joshua Johnston. Four days after being placed into custody, Johnston was found dead in his cell from a perforated esophageal ulcer. A hole had formed in his esophagus, causing saliva, liquids and food to spill into his thoracic cavity or abdomen.
According to the Ventura County Star, Johnston was arrested for suspicion of drug possession, probation violation and vehicle theft. He received a medical screening when first booked in the jail, where he told the nurse about his recent drug use and was prescribed treatment for opioid withdrawal. Johnston informed the nurse that he lost 40 pounds within six weeks and was having difficulty swallowing. He had blood in his stool, had been coughing blood for six months and vomiting blood for six weeks. His internal bleeding was left untreated and his single-occupancy cell was found covered in blood on the day he died.
Johnston’s mother and his adult children are suing the County of Ventura and Wellpath for negligence to treat his severe gastrointestinal problems. The lawsuit stated that Johnston showed obvious signs that he suffered from a life-threatening medical condition, which required immediate hospitalization and surgical intervention.
The lawsuit by Johnston’s family is just one of the three lawsuits filed in 2023 by the relatives of the victims who passed away in Ventura County’s jail. Cynthia Rizalla died at age 53 in Todd Road Jail in June 2023. The family of Rose Denley, an inmate who died after committing suicide at this jail in 2022, is also suing. These three cases were pre-trial, meaning they were never convicted of the crimes they were accused of. Wellpath and the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office are being charged for inadequate health care and mental health treatment provided for inmates.
The current five-year contract for jail health care took effect in July 2022. The contract was negotiated to include many improvements from the previous contract, including higher staffing levels and better mental health treatment for the inmates. Ventura County has had numerous other jail deaths that were settled for a total of $5.7 million, with Wellpath providing most of the money. The company is paid $18 million every year for them to be capable of providing medical service.
Wellpath gives health care to inmates located in jails from Santa Barbara to San Luis Obispo. The U.S. Department of Justice filed a report in San Luis Obispo that stated constitutional rights of inmates were violated because of insufficient medical treatment.
Reports on the San Luis Obispo jail prompted the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office to gather a committee to identify areas needing improvement. The committee’s discussions led to a new contract with Wellpath including benefits such as more staffing and working towards accreditation from the National Commission on Correctional Health Care. The jury concluded that 13 of their reviewed cases were “avoidable.” They also discovered that the medical screenings given to inmates upon arrival did not provide a complete evaluation of their medical and mental health.
In 1976, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that inadequate medical care is a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. The Ventura County Health Care Agency has a goal to provide “safety net” health care to those who can’t afford private care. It is now the largest single agency in Ventura County government with around a $1.1 billion budget and 3,700 full-time employees.