Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Healthcare provider for Pender County Jail bows out, commissioners to vote on new firm

Pender County commissioners will vote Monday on approving a contract for a new healthcare provider for inmates at the Pender County Jail. (Port City Daily/file)

PENDER COUNTY — Pender County commissioners will vote Monday on approving a contract to a new healthcare provider at the Pender County Jail. 

After serving the county since 2016, Wellpath decided to terminate its contract with the county in August with a 60-day notice. Services were set to expire Oct. 28, but county officials requested an extension to the end of November to allow time to find an alternative source.

READ MORE: Pender County looks for ways to cut costs on rising $46M new jail

Wellpath agreed to extend the contract to Nov. 30 but with half the weekly hours it was providing via the contract — from a total of 104 staff hours to 56.

No one from the Pender County Jail answered Port City Daily’s inquiry on how the decrease in hours would affect the inmates’ healthcare services. Nor would anyone — the jail division commander or Wellpath representatives — answer why the contract is being terminated.

Commissioners plan to award the new contract for healthcare at the jail, 104 N. Walker St., to Inmate Medical Services, chosen out of five submitted proposals among three providers.

According to Pender County Jail Administrator Captain Randolph King, IMS was chosen for numerous reasons:

  • IMS is a healthcare provider not a management company
  • The “cost pool” was eliminated in the proposal, offering a way to save money
  • Out of 10 NC local facilities with current contracts with IMS, six responded to King and all had positive responses
  • IMS’s proposal was the least expensive

A request for proposals was released Sept. 8 by the county, in conjunction with the sheriff’s office, and due less than a month later.

A quick turnaround was needed as the current healthcare provider for the 92-bed jail decided to cut ties four months after renewing its contract. Wellpath had been the provider for the jail for six years.

The jail’s healthcare services account for about 2.5% of the sheriff’s office budget, set to $14.2 million for fiscal year 2022-2023.

Wellpath leadership met with Pender County Sheriff Alan Cutler and jail administration on Aug. 25 to provide notice it would be ending its arrangement. In a letter sent to county officials following the meeting, Wellpath regional director of operations Christopher Mosley wrote: 

“Wellpath considers it a privilege and honor to have served as your medical partner for jail inmate services over many years. However, Wellpath has reached this difficult business decision that we are no longer able to meet your contractual needs as a client.”

According to the contract — amended six times over the course of its existence — Wellpath is providing a licensed nurse practitioner eight hours on Monday through Friday, and 12 hours on Saturday and Sunday. A registered nurse is staffed 40 hours per week, Monday through Friday. Last year, the provider also began offering telepsychiatry services biweekly, 26 times total throughout the year, for an additional $5,400 annually.

In 2020, the Nashville-based medical provider asked for a 3.5% compensation increase from $319,060 to $329,107 annually. It requested an additional 3.5% increase in 2021, up to $344,905.

Per the latest contract, signed April 4, 2022, the healthcare provider sought a 4% to address staffing shortages.

“We are experiencing a once-in-a-generation staffing crisis in healthcare. Driven by one-time bonuses and supplemental wages, the cost of nurses and other healthcare professionals, which represent 60% of our total costs, have increased at rates many times the CPI for Medical Care Services,” the letter stated.

The consumer price index was 2.7% in February 2022, which Wellpath was referring to, and has since risen to 6.5% for medical care services, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Pender County agreed to pay Wellpath — serving over 350 county and local jails and more than 135 state and federal prisons — $357,422 annually or nearly $30,000 monthly.

Based on information in commissioners’ agenda packet for Monday’s meeting, IMS has agreed to the same pay.

The two entities will work together with IMS shadowing Wellpath one to two days a week during the transition period. The new provider will officially start on or before Dec. 1 and cover 16 hours per day on the weekdays and 12 hours per day on the weekends. The county is also requesting someone be on call 24/7.

At a minimum the provider will offer medical assessments, routine care, diagnosis or referrals to more extensive treatment, administering and securing prescription medications, lab services, addressing medical emergencies and maintaining confidentiality of medical records.

The current facility averages 62 inmates daily, but the county has noted it needs room to grow.

Sheriff Alan Cutler has stated the current jail facility is a “constant drain on Pender County funds.” With maintenance costs rising on to the 44-year-old building and out-of-county housing costs to store overflow inmates, the county is in the process of constructing a larger, modern facility.

Over the course of the last five to seven years, Pender County has spent nearly $4 million to transfer inmates to neighboring counties.

Commissioners approved plans for a multi-use law enforcement center October 2021, and as of April, construction estimates were roughly $48 million. The structure would house the sheriff’s office, 911 center and a jail double the size of the current one.

The 100-acre property northwest of Burgaw was donated by the state in July 2019 and is only a few miles away from the existing jail.

A new facility has been in the works for nearly a decade, with a feasibility study conducted in 2011 by Moseley Architects, the same firm commissioners engaged last fall to begin the initial design phase.

Moseley’s plans include a 96,000 square-foot building with 242 beds with core facilities — kitchen, cafeteria and laundry services — to easily accommodate up to 350 beds.

Final approval to put the project out to bid is on the docket for 2023.

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