TRAVERSE CITY — Following questions from county commissioners, Grand Traverse County Sheriff Tom Bensley told the city’s Human Rights Commission, he’s now considering monitoring Wellpath, the contractor hired to provide medical services to inmates.

“There has been some concern raised by some of the county commissioners that has to do with Wellpath, and who’s watching over them to see are they doing their job,” Bensley said. “Is there something more that can be done? We’re looking into that.”

Bensley attended a prior Human Rights meeting Sept. 9 where he said he was “just listening. ”

But Monday night the sheriff made a lengthy public statement, addressing a range of issues including news stories about jail medication policies; video visitation; the difficulties of managing an outdated facility; what he said were errors in public statements by a jail clergyman; the investigation into charges by Greg Hall regarding his mother’s blood pressure medication; and data on pretrial incarceration discussed at a recent public forum.

A meeting between Greg Hall, representatives from the county board, County Administrator Nate Alger, and the sheriff, was scheduled for Tuesday evening.

Wellpath, a $1.5 billion Nashville-based corporation is the largest provider of inmate health care services in the nation, with 300,000 patients in 34 states. According to federal documents, there have been nearly 1,400 lawsuits filed against the company, and one of its pre-cursors, Correct Care Solutions.

“I’m not going to ask you to speak to the lawsuits,” said Commission Chair Becky Rogan, “but what I’m wondering is, who is responsible for finding medical care for the jail?”

The contract is put out for bid, results are looked over by jail staff and the sheriff, who then make a recommendation to the county board, Bensley said.

The sheriff’s announcement about whether Wellpath should be subject to outside monitoring came near the end of his statement, in response to a question from commission member Christie Minervini.

“Can you be frank?” Minervini asked. “Is there anything in terms of policy or procedure that you think is flawed? Is there any area of positive change?”

“There are some options here for an independent third party to keep an eye on what they do,” Bensley said. “Do we need that? I don’t know. It is an option but it will cost money.”

Bensley said he’d directed Undersheriff Mike Shea to pose a question on the Michigan Sheriffs Association listserve, asking for input on monitoring an outside corporate healthcare provider. Answers received so far have stated that communities who contract with Wellpath do no monitoring.

Commission member Suzanne Connor said if continuous monitoring of Wellpath was cost- prohibitive, the contract between Wellpath and the county should be audited annually, “at a minimum.”

“What makes your population particularly vulnerable is, they don’t have the option that we all have to get a second opinion,” Connor said. “Looking at how you can hold them accountable is what we would expect.”

The sheriff said he would keep the commission informed of monitoring options.

The $600,000 annual contract with the county gives Wellpath the responsibility, and the liability, to manage inmate healthcare. It pays for nurses to dispense medication and provide daily care, and includes an $85,000 “cap” on certain services such as hospital visits; transportation by ambulance; and dental, radiology and pharmacy services. Wellpath pays the first $85,000; the county pays for any overages.

The sheriff said the county also has a $163,500 contract with Northern Lakes Community Mental Health to provide counseling services to inmates.

“Because of these caps, is Wellpath being kind of frugal and perhaps not allowing inmates medications they’ve been prescribed to take?” Minervini asked.

“We have no control over that, we’ don’t tell Wellpath, ‘Just bandage up their broken arm,’ and I would think they (Wellpath) are not too concerned about the $85,000 cap.”

“I would argue they would try to keep the county’s cost down so the county would renew their contract,” Minervini said.

The county has contracted with Wellpath — or a precursor of Wellpath as the company has undergone a number of mergers — since 2010. Prior to that, the jail hired the facility’s medical staff.

The contract with Wellpath overlaps the county’s fiscal year, and will be up for renewal March 1.

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