Traverse City News and Events

County Scrutinizes Medical, Funding Issues At Jail

By Beth Milligan | Oct. 4, 2019

Grand Traverse County commissioners this week scrutinized the state of medical care in the county jail, grilling Sheriff’s Office officials and private contractors about how medication is distributed and complaints are handled following a rash of public criticism. Commissioners also considered a proposal from Commissioner Gordie LaPointe to oppose Traverse City’s extension of its tax increment financing (TIF) 97 plan to free up county funds to build a new jail.

Commissioner Betsy Coffia requested a review of medical care in the jail following the launch of a public Facebook page called Abuse at the Grand Traverse County Jail. Greg Hall started the page and alleged online and at Wednesday’s commission meeting that jail staff failed to give his mother blood pressure medication while she was incarcerated, sending her to the emergency room. Hall requested an internal investigation of the case and threatened legal action against the county, telling commissioners he has heard “hundreds and hundreds” of similar stories in recent weeks from other individuals about jail conditions.

According to Grand Traverse Sheriff Tom Bensley, the county has outsourced medical care for inmates since 2010 at an average cost of $460,000 annually. That contract – with a company that is today 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 to provide two full-time mental health professionals at the jail at a cost of $163,000 annually.

Bensley pointed out that medical care within a jail is often handled – by necessity – differently than in the outside world. “People may not want to hear this, but we operate a jail – a facility to keep inmates in there, number one,” he said. “That’s our responsibility. We’re not a hospital. We’re not a mental health facility.” He continued that because he and other Sheriff’s Office staff are not medical experts, all healthcare-related decisions are entrusted to the outside companies hired by the county. “All medical issues involving medical judgment are the sole province of (Wellpath),” he said. “They’re in charge of the medical part of our operation.”

Coffia questioned who was responsible for overseeing Wellpath or taking action if Wellpath staff made mistakes regarding inmate healthcare. “Who’s overseeing that, if not the sheriff? Because the state’s not here on a daily basis looking at that kind of thing," she said.

Bensley acknowledged Wellpath was essentially responsible for monitoring itself.  “I don’t have the expertise to know if the medical practices that they’re doing in the jail are following common agreed-upon medical practices,” he said. “That’s not my job. There is a level of trust here that when we hire somebody, they will do that.” Coffia also expressed concern about the impact on inmates from the recent controversy involving former Jail Administrator Todd Ritter, who is facing multiple allegations of misconduct, inmate abuse, and policy violations. “I don’t feel he is an actor we can feel confident was making sure that the medical needs (of inmates) were being met,” she said. Bensley said he didn’t think a connection could be made between “the trouble that Captain Ritter had and his job performance,” though Bensley agreed there has been a recent “void” in jail administration leadership.

Wellpath representatives and new Jail Administrator Chris Barsheff both defended conditions in the jail. Elaine Kaiser of Wellpath, who oversees approximately a dozen jail contracts similar to Grand Traverse County’s, said she comes to Traverse City every six weeks to meet with jail staff, make sure her “staff is property trained in policies and procedures,” review inmate complaints, and conduct internal oversights. “We’re based upon our services and our reputation,” she said. “If we don’t provide proper services to inmates, we won’t be in business very long.” Barsheff also said some inmate complaints derived from an expectation of immediate service delivery that wouldn’t be realistic in the outside world, where it can take weeks to secure medical appointments. “I think that’s the feeling of inmates, is that things just don’t happen quick enough,” he said. “And in reality, I think they almost happen quicker for inmates than it does for me or the general public.”

Bensley said county commissioners would be welcome to attend quarterly meetings between jail staff and Wellpath employees to discuss issues related to inmate care. He also suggested that commissioners could hire an independent consultant or outside company to review Wellpath’s contract and performance. Barsheff also invited any members of the public with complaints about the jail to contact him directly. Whether from inmates or outside individuals, “every concern that’s raised to me, I address it,” Barsheff said.

Commissioner Gordie LaPointe suggested Wednesday that county commissioners amend a resolution they were considering to oppose Traverse City’s extension of its TIF 97 plan to specify that new county tax revenues would “fund a bond to construct a much-needed new county jail.” The Traverse City Downtown Development Authority (DDA) has argued the city should extend TIF 97 beyond its planned 2027 expiration date, saying that continued tax capture is the only way the city will be able to fund the planned construction of a third public parking deck downtown on West Front Street. LaPointe argued that if TIF 97 expired, commissioners could use the anticipated $700,000-$750,000 boost in new tax revenue annually back to the county to partially pay for a new county jail, helping address concerns about conditions.

“I think from a community standpoint as a whole, do we need a third parking deck or the new jail?” LaPointe asked, saying the resolution could serve as a “PR strategy” that would rally public support for opposing TIF 97 in order to fund a new jail.

But other commissioners criticized adding language about the jail to the TIF 97 resolution, with Hundley and Coffia saying LaPointe’s last-minute addition to the resolution essentially committed the county to building a new jail – and using bonds to pay for it – without an in-depth discussion or notice to the public. Commissioner Brad Jewett agreed. “I also do not feel we need to add more language given to us at the last minute to a clear resolution already,” he said. 

Commissioner Sonny Wheelock added he didn’t want to wait until 2027 to start funding new jail construction. “I’m hoping that the jail is well under progress and manned and operating before eight years from now,” he said. Commissioners ultimately voted 6-1 – with Hundley opposed – to pass a resolution opposing TIF 97’s extension, but did not include LaPointe’s proposed language committing to jail funding.

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