Board Rejects Outsourced Inmate Care
Unanimous vote rejects private company, calls for county staff to handle health services in jails.
The Milwaukee County Board voted Thursday to look into bringing inmate health services back under the county’s purview, meaning a private contractor would no longer handle the work.
The board voted unanimously to pass the resolution, and many on the board don’t want to consider another private contractor, especially since the current provider has failed in ways both costly and deadly.
Armor Correctional Health Services has been providing medical care to inmates and the Milwaukee County Jail and the House of Corrections since 2013. Armor is currently facing criminal charges for abuse of an inmate in connection with the death of Terrill Thomas, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported, who died of dehydration after going a week in solitary confinement without water. Armor also faces charges for falsifying records.
As far back as 2013, the county board initially opposed contracting with Armor. But a Circuit Court Judge ruled that Armor had to be contracted with in order to make up for staffing failures and record keeping that were degrading the quality of care for inmates in the Milwaukee County Jail and House of Correction.
But the request for proposal process keeps proposals confidential. So the county board did not know who the potential contractor would be until Armor had been selected by then-Sheriff David Clarke. They then had to vote on it, with no other option. They voted no, but the court ordered them to contract with Armor.
Armor’s original contract was to expire on January 1, 2019. So in order to maintain medical service until then, Armor’s contract was extended until the end of March 2019. Meanwhile there is a new RFP process for selecting a contractor that will be over seen by a panel overseen by administration of County Executive Chris Abele, but which also includes a representative of the Sheriff’s office. Whomever the panel picks to offer an intent to contract with, the County Board will have no other option but to vote them in. Because there will be no other option. Unless they have a plan in place to bring inmate health services back in-house.
At a meeting of the Finance and Audit Committee this month, Board Chairman Theodore Lipscomb, Sr. appeared before the committee and advocated for his proposal that the county begin working towards bringing the health service back under county control. And he said, “In trying to sell (Armor) to the board back then, all of the statements that you’ll hear about the new provider were made.”
Lipscomb has been clear that he did not trust Armor in 2013, and that he doesn’t trust any private service provider going forward. “This is healthcare for thousands of people in your custody. You must get that right,” he said.
Erin Schaffer, RFP and contracts manager with administrative services, said at committee that her office has been writing the current RFP since January, with help from experts supplied by the National Commission on Correctional Health Care (NCCHC) – the entity that accredits correctional healthcare services. With this help and further research, they identified and fixed weaknesses in the contract that should solve some of the issues with Armor.
Schaffer further said that experts at the NCCHC did not think the short timeline between now and April 1 was long enough to analyze the feasibility of bringing inmate health services back under county control without potentially hurting patient care in the process.
Lipscomb, however, said all the work done in this latest RFP process can be used as a road map for analyzing potential in-house services. So as a result of Thursday’s vote, the House of Corrections, the Office of the Sheriff, the Office of Corporation Counsel, the Office of the Comptroller, and the Department of Administrative Services will provide a report to the county board on how inmate health services can be transferred back under county control in January.
Supervisor James Schmitt, chairman of the finance and audit committee, threw in behind Lipscomb’s proposal, and at the board meeting Thursday he advocated for its passage, saying: “If we can do something in house, we certainly should look at it.” He added that the standards needed to evaluate the proposal should be clear because of the Armor’s demonstrated failures.
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