Last week, El Paso County commissioners dumped the company that has, for the past 13 years, provided medical and mental health services to the county's two jails.
You'll recall that the Criminal Justice Center and downtown's overcrowded Metro facility carry the dubious distinction of logging nine inmate deaths since 1998 -- far higher than the national average or that of similarly sized jails in Colorado. (Especially noteworthy for those who believe convicts deserve what they get is that the inmates who died -- of drug overdose, suicide, heart or other medical problems -- had not been convicted of any crime, but were either newly arrested or were awaiting court appearances.)
In November, the county's longtime jailhouse health provider, St. Louisbased Correctional Medical Services (CMS), submitted a bid to continue its contract. Their proposal included cost-of-living increases, as well as nurses' pay raises and an increase in staffing at the county's two jails. County commissioners, however, balked at the proposed increase and ordered the contract sent out for bids from other companies.
The upshot is that the commissioners accepted a $1.9 million low bid from Englewood, Colo.based Correctional Health Care Management to provide medical services to the jails. The new company, now touted by sheriff's representatives as "much better," also has contracts with other Colorado jails and those in four other states. It is unclear whether the medical staff currently working at the jail will be relieved of their duties or if they will be retained under the new contractor.
During the commissioners meeting, both the elected officials and county staff only delicately approached the, uh, unfortunate problems of the past, which have resulted in wrongful death lawsuits against the county and tax-paid settlements to the families of the dead inmates.
Approving the new contract, Commission Chairman Tom Huffman opined that Correctional Health Care Management will bring "better services for less money" than the dumped CMS -- which in the past was also praised to the heavens for its expertise.
The county's director of procurement and contacts, Gina Abbott, estimated that, over the course of the new five-year contract, the county will save $80,000 over what it would have had to pay CMS.
"You guys did an excellent job," Huffman beamed to the county staff.
The county's elected Sheriff John Anderson, who oversees the jails, did not appear at last Thursday's hearing. However, current Undersheriff Terry Maketa was on hand to warmly welcome Correctional Health Care Management aboard.
Maketa specifically noted that the new company has promised that at least one nurse who is trained in Advanced Cardiac Life Support (ACLF) will be scheduled during every shift, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Such advanced training, he said, gives staff the upper hand in responding to cardiac-related emergencies. In at least four of the inmate deaths, heart failure of varying forms was to blame.
"I don't want to say CMS didn't handle anything inappropriately, but it's comforting that [the new company] will have the added training," said Maketa, who, with the current sheriff's endorsement, is running to replace Anderson when he is term-limited from office in November. "It will be nice to have a fresh set of eyes."
Now this is where it gets interesting. A subsequent Independent review of the county's most current jailhouse contract for health services shows that the old company, CMS, also promised at least one ACLS-trained nurse would be available at all times at the jail.
Which begs a couple of questions: If Maketa and the county commissioners are so relieved to have trained 24-hour cardiac emergency nurses, why didn't they know that their current contract already required such staffing? And, did CMS violate the terms of its contract by not providing such nurses at the county's jails?
Four days after the new health care contract was approved, the Sheriff's Office announced a new committee to review policies and procedures related to mental health issues at its jails. And why the county signed the contract first and asked for citizen input after the fact is one of those great mysteries of life.
The sheriff's 14-member detention review panel includes representatives from the local Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the NAACP, the Adams and El Paso County Sheriff's Offices, as well as Colorado Springs City Councilman and cardiologist Dr. Ted Eastburn and other local professionals.
Unfortunately, the press was barred from attending their inaugural meeting on Monday night. Let's hope that doesn't set the standard for a decision-making body engaged in what should be a serious -- and very public -- review of jailhouse health-care policies.