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Skagit County’s new jail ready for inmates, but who will provide their medical care?

With Skagit County set to move jail inmates into the new Community Justice Center, questions remain about who will provide medical services. The 400-bed facility is one of the largest buildings in Mount Vernon
With Skagit County set to move jail inmates into the new Community Justice Center, questions remain about who will provide medical services. The 400-bed facility is one of the largest buildings in Mount Vernon Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

With Skagit County set to move jail inmates into the new Community Justice Center, questions remain about who will provide medical services.

Jessica Neill Hoyson, the county’s director of human resources and risk management, opened a presentation to the Board of County Commissioners on Tuesday by asking a question.

“Do we continue with direct services, or do we contract with a for-profit provider?” she asked.

The county currently employs jail medical staff itself, saving money over contracting for services while accepting sole responsibility for union negotiations and potential malpractice lawsuits.

At an estimated $1.9 million a year, county-provided services at the new jail would be cheaper than contracting with NaphCare, a private, Alabama-based jail healthcare company that has expressed interest in working with the county.

Private-sector estimates come in at about $2.1 million, Neill Hoyson said. Both the county and private-sector numbers factor in an expected increase in inmate population at the larger jail – with 400 beds, the new jail is much larger than the current 83-bed facility.

Both plans would provide for about 12 full-time equivalent positions.

Neill Hoyson said county staff recommend hiring a consultant to evaluate the different models, but that recommendation was not discussed by the commissioners.

Dr. Marc Stern, an assistant professor at the University of Washington’s School of Public Health, told the commissioners Tuesday that by spending about $3,000 to $4,000 per inmate per year, Skagit County currently falls on the lower end of the spectrum for jail medical care. The new plans would increase that number to about $8,000.

Jail inmates tend to have more health issues than the general population, he said. Studies indicate that investments in medical care for inmates tend to save money for the public health system when those inmates return to the community, he said.

Stern, stakeholders from the jail and the commissioners were skeptical about privatization.

“I think privatization is more expensive,” Stern said. “(To make a profit), it has to be.”

Chief of Corrections Charlie Wend said he has worked to build relationships between the jail and mental health and drug addiction treatment facilities in the community. Those relationships may not carry over to a private provider, he said.

“There are just some functions of government that should stay with the government,” Wend said.

However, Stern anticipated NaphCare would have an easier time hiring medical staff because it would pay higher wages. The county has said it’s had trouble with staffing because it can’t offer competitive wages.

The county’s Jail Finance Committee, made up of city and county representatives, meets Sept. 20, and the commissioners are expected to come to the table with a suggestion.

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