Sunday, December 17, 2017
Public safety

Pinellas sheriff cancels contract with jail's medical provider

LARGO — The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office has terminated a multimillion-dollar contract with the Miami-based company that oversaw medical services at the jail, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said Tuesday.

Armor Correctional Health Services staffed roughly 20 inmate health care positions, including doctors, dentists and psychiatrists, since November. The contract extended through 2015.

But on Tuesday, Gualtieri explained a number of "operational concerns" between the Armor staff and jail management, as well as thousands of dollars that the Sheriff's Office fined Armor for failing to provide timely medical care to inmates. From March 16 to 31, Armor was fined more than $150,000. The Sheriff's Office could not provide an updated fine total Tuesday.

"It just wasn't working," Gualtieri said. "I don't think we can work out some of those differences. … Our staff has one view, their staff has another view, and some of it can't be reconciled."

Armor also experienced staffing challenges. As of April, about 10 employees stopped working at the jail, including doctors and dental assistants. The company also replaced the Pinellas jail's medical director twice. The position is being filled temporarily, the sheriff said.

"They've had some turnover, some people coming and going," Gualtieri said. "Some of it is having stability. That's factored in to some of the problems we've had."

Among other disagreements: In the past, doctors at the jail checked vital signs for inmates, but Armor considered that a task for nurses, who are employed by the Sheriff's Office. Armor employees are also accustomed to working with an electronic medical records system, while the Sheriff's Office keeps paperwork.

Armor officials agreed with the sheriff that the "medical model" at the jail "was not functioning in a manner which maximizes patient care," said company spokeswoman Yeleny Suarez in a written statement.

"The company feels the system enhancements Armor proposed, such as an alternative electronic medical record system and maximization of services provided by nursing staff, would be beneficial," she added.

Across the bay, Armor Correctional Health Services has a troubling history.

In May 2012, Allen Daniel Hicks Sr. was arrested on a charge of obstructing an officer after a Florida Highway Patrol trooper found him parked against a guardrail on Interstate 275 in Hillsborough County, speaking incoherently and not responding to commands. Hicks was booked into the Orient Road jail without a medical screening. He was later found lying in his urine inside a cell and was taken to Tampa General Hospital, where doctors concluded he had suffered a stroke. Hicks died three months later.

The Hillsborough Sheriff's Office and Armor agreed to pay his family $1 million in wrongful-death settlements. The Florida Department of Health also launched an investigation.

In February, Gualtieri asked the company's CEO to remove Armor administrator Lewis Hays from overseeing the Pinellas jail contract after learning that Hays had been ousted from the Hillsborough County jail after Hicks' arrest.

Armor will stop providing medical services at the Pinellas jail in 30 days.

The Sheriff's Office placed the jail's medical services out for bid because of difficulty recruiting doctors and the rising cost of prisoner health care. Under the $6.5 million contract, the Sheriff's Office was required to pay Armor $488,000 in 2013, followed by about $3 million annually this year and in 2015.

After Armor employees leave the jail, Gualtieri said the Sheriff's Office will again begin recruiting medical staffers, including Armor employees already at the jail.

The Sheriff's Office has also replaced Jeanne Phillips, the health services administrator, because of ongoing issues with her "decisionmaking and leadership ability," Gualtieri said. Jail supervisor Capt. Sean McGillen will now oversee the medical staff.

"The prudent thing to do is bring it back in-house," Gualtieri said.

Times staff writer Peter Jamison contributed to this report. Laura C. Morel can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4157. Follow on Twitter @lauracmorel.

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