Wednesday, April 30, 2003

Health costs jump for Warren inmates



By Jennifer Edwards
The Cincinnati Enquirer

LEBANON - A 60 percent increase in health care costs for inmates at the Warren County Jail prompted county commissioners Tuesday to search for a new health care provider.

If another company can provide health care cheaper for the county jail's 220 inmates, a notice to terminate the current contract with a private company will be issued by Sept. 1, commissioners unanimously agreed.

"I meant it when I said before that we are not running the Mayo Clinic here," Commissioner Mike Kilburn said.

"We have an obligation to make sure that we treat people so that their lives aren't in jeopardy while they are in jail," he said. "... but I don't necessarily want to meet every national accreditation program going on."

After realizing total jail health care personnel costs jumped from $265,013 last year to $424,764.60, commissioners recently ordered a re-examination of the total $573,342 contract.

The county's 2002 contract expired with PhyAmerica Correctional Healthcare Inc., of Washington D.C., at the end of December. Since January, the county extended that contract before finally authorizing Administrator Bob Price to sign the new one March 27.

Not signing the contract would have left the inmates without health coverage and opened the county up to huge financial liabilities. The contract contains a 90-day clause to allow the county time to shop for a better bargain.

PhyAmerica was the only bidder this year for inmate health services. The company also provides services for the county's juvenile detention facility at a cost of $82,000 this year, up from $75,000 last year.

A few health care companies even have indicated they won't agree to the current prices, jail officials said.

Kilburn said Tuesday, however, that at least one health care provider has indicated his company could provide services to Warren's jail cheaper than PhyAmerica.

But jail administrators maintain the new contract is not excessive. It provides for 74 hours of nursing care during seven days, up from 22 hours in the last contract. The increase pays for basic care the county is required to give by state law, Warren County Sheriff Tom Ariss stressed.

A main reason for the steep price increase this year, jail officials said, is more nurses and other staff are needed to keep up with the county's rising inmate population.

"Not one thing that we do is extra," said Roxanne Walters, the jail health service administrator who also is a PhyAmerica representative. "It's like bare basics that we're doing. If it gets any less, it's going to be a legal issue."

Some surrounding county jails also pay more for health care and nurses - and still will even with the new contract, jail officials said.

During a recent job search, for instance, only two out of 28 original applicants remained interested in working at the county jail after being told of the pay, Walters added.

Nurses in other areas such as Hamilton County are paid $22.50 to $26.00 per hour compared with Warren's average nurse pay of $21.50 an hour, she said.

"You have to be competitive. We need good, qualified nurses in there to match what the expectations are on the outside," Ariss said.

The previous contract also did not account for a nurse who worked part-time last year at the jail, so PhyAmerica lost $4,056 a month in overtime costs, Walters and Ariss pointed out.

E-mail jedwards@enquirer.com.




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