May 7, 2020

County To Fund Independent Review Of Jail Medical, Mental Health Services

Grand Traverse County commissioners Wednesday voted to hire an independent firm to evaluate the county jail’s medical and mental health services – a move that follows a rash of public criticism last fall about jail conditions and a number of inmate suicide attempts and deaths in recent years.

Commissioners voted 5-0 – with Betsy Coffia and Gordie LaPointe absent – to hire NCCHC Resources to conduct an independent review of inmate services at the Grand Traverse County Jail. The consulting group is a nonprofit entity of the National Commission on Correctional Health Care and works with approximately 500 jails and prisons across the country – including in Michigan – to provide technical assistance and expertise on best practices for jail operations. “We literally write the book, if you will, on what it is to provide correctional healthcare,” said NCCHC Managing Director Dr. Brent Gibson.

The contract’s fixed fee (including all expenses) is $24,640 and will include an evaluation of Grand Traverse County Jail health services compared to NCCHC standards, a review of medical records and interviews with staff and patients, recommended changes for improving healthcare efficiency and effectiveness, and a final comprehensive written report assessing jail conditions. With past Grand Traverse County Jail inmates and family members publicly criticizing medical and mental health treatment services at the facility – resulting in lawsuits and the launch of a Facebook page documenting alleged jail abuses – Commissioner Sonny Wheelock said the cost of the contract was easily justified if it prevented future litigation against the county.

“No matter how well we try to think we’ve got a handle on it, we do not have the expertise to evaluate the services that are in fact being provided in the jail,” Wheelock said. “Therefore, an independent evaluation is appropriate I believe at this time.”

Grand Traverse County Sheriff Tom Bensley brought forward the contract proposal, saying it would help answer lingering questions about whether jail services are adequate or in need of improvement. The county has outsourced medical care for inmates since 2010 at an average cost of $460,000 annually, according to figures previously provided by Bensley. That contract – with a company called Wellpath – spiked to $555,000 in 2018 and is expected to climb to $615,000 in 2020. The county also contracts with Northern Lakes Community Mental Health (NLCMH) to provide two full-time mental health professionals at the jail at a cost of $163,000 annually. Bensley previously told commissioners that he and other Sheriff’s Office staff aren’t medical experts and don’t necessarily have the skillsets to evaluate the quality of services provided by Wellpath and NLCMH, but that an independent company with relevant expertise could.

“(The evaluation) will do two things,” Bensley said Wednesday. “Number one, it will either indicate that what we’re doing is appropriate and follows all the guidelines and recommendations…or if there are some deficiencies, it will give us an opportunity to improve on those deficiencies for the delivery of healthcare and mental health services in the jail.” The sheriff added that NCCHC Resources is “probably the top resource for prisons and jails in the country. They will provide an independent review and evaluation and report back to the county, and I think that’s a fair way to do this.”

Commission Chair Rob Hentschel said that in addition to the evaluation, he hoped to see the county pursue NCCHC accreditation in the future, a process that would provide additional training to staff and ensure that Grand Traverse County Jail was performing in line with national best practices for inmate care. “As county commissioners and as the general public, we don’t know what goes on in the jail other than what we’re told,” Hentschel said. “So having an accreditation I think would be very healthy for our public trust.”

Also at Wednesday’s meeting…
> Commissioners approved $19,292 in technology upgrades for the county’s IT department to beef up security and improve virtual operations during the pandemic. According to IT Director Cliff DuPuy, the county “is experiencing an increase in malicious hacking attempts from internal actors as well as phishing attempts” and is concerned about providing better security for federally protected data, such as medical information. The upgrades include the purchase of a virtual desk infrastructure and an application management suite of products that will provide “an extra layer of security for the end users and specifically for the data that we’re responsible for within the county,” DuPuy said.

> Commissioners decided to hold onto a piece of county-owned property on Cass Road that staff had recommended be put up for sale. Staff were previously instructed to identify any underused county properties that could be considered for disposal or sale and came up with “only one possibility at this time,” according to Facilities Director Joe Berry. That parcel is a four-acre site on Cass Road purchased in 1989 with the goal of providing a connection point for the planned Hartman-Hammond bypass. Though staff said the property wasn’t being used for anything today, County Administrator Nate Alger said the Grand Traverse County Road Commission had expressed interested in the property, with a bypass still a potential option in the future.

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