Dec. 3-HENDERSON - County officials and the Vance County Sheriff's Office are on the verge of selecting a new contractor to provide health care services to prisoners in the county jail.
The sheriff's office within the past two weeks "has agreed to contract" with Advanced Correctional Healthcare, a Tennessee-based firm that by its own reckoning was already serving more than 340 jails and other facilities in 19 other states, County Manager Jordan McMillen said.
Vance County's deal with the firm would pay it $462,486 a year to provide 12 hours a day of on-site nursing services at the jail, "weekly and on-call access to a prescriber," and on-site and on-demand officer training, McMillen said in a summary for county commissioners.
Sheriff Curtis Brame and his staff have been looking for a new health care provider for the jail since October, when the previous one, Southern Health Partners, abruptly terminated its contract with them.
Southern Health cited "safety and liability concerns," and emails from its COO and its local doctor suggested the commander of the Vance County Jail had been interfering with medical decisions.
The doctor, Demaura Russell, told her bosses the commander of the jail had "refused to carry out medical orders" after care providers had "attempted to send out a few inmates for necessary" services.
This carried the risk of putting "inmates in danger of not receiving the appropriate medical care," potentially leading to harm or deaths, she said.
Southern Health COO Lacey LaFuze followed up by telling McMillen and Brame there "should be no interference" when Russell advised or ordered that a prisoner be sent off-site for care.
Brame subsequently gave orders against any interference, but the move didn't appear to satisfy Southern Health, which pulled the plug on its contract on Sept. 29 and ended operations on Oct. 14.
The sheriff's office has since been using a temporary provider, StarMed Healthcare, that's likely to receive about $350,000 for its work presuming that Advanced Correctional Healthcare takes over on Jan. 9. The new contract remains under review.
"ACH provided a competitive proposal and serves a number of facilities across the nation," McMillen said. "We are hopeful this partnership will be productive for years to come."
But the company is the target of a three-week-old federal lawsuit in Missouri that accuses it of helping deny a prisoner access to drugs he needed to combat an HIV infection and mental-health problems.
Filed on behalf of the prisoner by two lawyers from the ACLU of Missouri Foundation, its allegations include one claiming that Advanced Correctional Healthcare allowed the staff of the Pettis County Jail to interfere in medical decisions.
Specifically, the company, Pettis County and its sheriff don't allow the jail's doctor to prescribe mental-health meds "unless a correctional officer - not a medical professional - deems it necessary," the suit alleges on behalf of a prisoner identified only as John Doe.
And a jail staffer, not a nurse, decides which prisoners get to see ACH's doctor, it alleges.
The lawsuit further claims that the Pettis jail declined to give Doe, who's indigent, access to HIV meds until he found an outside group to pay for them, and that a jail staffer told him he would receive the meds if he pleaded guilty to the crime he was accused of committing.
That was because after a guilty plea, he'd move to state prison, the group said in a news release that said Pettis County - which is about 90 miles east of Kansas City - tries "to avoid accountability for failing to meet its constitutional duty to provide health care to the people in their custody."
An ACLU Missouri spokesman, Tom Bastian, said the group also feels Advanced Correctional Healthcare "has displayed a pattern of deliberate indifference in facilities across Missouri that led to the detriment of the very patients they are contracted to provide care."
He added that "several lawsuits have been filed in state and federal courts to compel [them] to do their job and provide inmates the health care they are constitutionally entitled to receive."
Here in Vance County, McMillen said he appreciated the heads-up about the Missouri case but said it was "hard for me to comment on a lawsuit that may or may not be made on unfounded accusations in the complaint and press release."
He also noted that the county role in the selection of a care provider "is really reserved to the financial aspects," and that county officials "disagree with Southern Health's assertions" about what led to its departure.
Brame was included on The Dispatch's email chain with McMillen but didn't offer any response. The sheriff's office by law is responsible for operating the jail.
Contact Ray Gronberg at email@example.com or by phone at 252-436-2850.