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Santa Cruz County jails switch medical, mental health provider with $11M contract

Santa Cruz Sentinel - 6/18/2024

Jun. 18—SANTA CRUZ — In the shadow of a recent Civil Grand Jury report critical of jail mental health services, Santa Cruz County officials voted this month to move its private corrections health services contract to a new provider.

The nearly $11 million one-year corrections department contract for private mental, medical, dental and pharmaceutical services — a spending increase of nearly $2 million above last year's budget — was awarded to NaphCare Inc. after a request for bids. Predecessor Wellpath LLC, formed in 2018 from a merger between Correctional Medical Group Cos. and Correct Care Solutions, has served as Santa Cruz County's jail medical service provider since 2012 and provided mental health services since mid-2021, according to a Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors report presented June 4.

Sheriff Jim Hart, who oversees Santa Cruz County's corrections division, said Monday that concerns raised in this month's Santa Cruz County Civil Grand Jury report titled "We Can Do Better with Our Jails! Better Healthcare and Reentry Support" were not factors in the selection of a new contractor. In fact, Hart said he was "pretty satisfied" with Wellpath's mental health services. He said he did see areas of improvement needed with the service provider's medical services when it came to sufficient jail staffing, however.

Serious concerns or misconceptions?

The report highlighted concerns including extended use of small "safety cells" for isolation, recommended that the jails restore and increase rehabilitation, education and restorative justice programs to prepare inmates for reentry into society and increase the frequency of inmate classification for those with mental illness from once a month to once a week, among other concerns aimed at Wellpath's operations.

Hart criticized the grand jury report's overall thrust, to which the Sheriff's Office will have 60 days to formally respond to, as having "no balance" by leaving out what positive mental health treatment, programs and opportunities he said the jails offer. He added that "a lot of little items that were stated as facts, that just isn't true," a picture of the jail system he and his staff intend to respond to thoroughly, Hart said.

"What the grand jury also failed to mention is that we increased our budget by almost $2 million last year to increase mental health services, where we're doing mental health screening at intake and even prior to intake, at the sallyport," Hart said. "So, we've even actually done a lot over the last five or 10 years in terms of funding additional mental health services that we have clinicians on staff 16 hours a day, we have Telehealth 24 hours a day for people who ... have mental health needs. They failed to mention any of that."

The 45-page grand jury report concludes with a description that the body "is deeply concerned with the poor mental health treatment provided to our inmate population" and delivers 16 findings and 14 recommendations relating to state standards compliance, jail conditions, rehabilitation and reentry preparation and access to inmate interviews and rehabilitation programs. The report also commended the jail system, finding "staff are truly concerned about the well-being of inmates" and noted the existence of "numerous County funded programs and services in and outside of the Jail that help inmates to prepare for reentry into the community and reduce recidivism rates."

Public speaks up on mental health

The pending July 1 jails service provider contract change to NaphCare, with options for up to three additional single-year extensions, passed without supervisors' comment on the consent calendar, came after a series of community members stood to plead with elected officials to maintain a balanced budgeting perspective when it came to public health versus public safety spending.

Bernie Gomez, of the Monterey and Santa Cruz county-serving Motivating Individual Leadership for Public Advancement or MILPA, said that suggestions to shift funding and services away from law enforcement were often incorrectly seen as "anti-police." Really, he said, it was an effort to address increasing rates of mental health and substance abuse issues.

"More often than not, public health and public safety is often pitted against each other. So, I think it's a good opportunity for us to rethink and readjust the practices that have been ongoing," Gomez said. "We live in a new age, so with a new age deserves new approaches."

Meanwhile, in a letter to supervisors, community member Judi Gunstra raised concerns about the new contract, which extends nearly $1.9 million over the line item's projected budget, according to the supervisors' staff report.

"Seeing the $11 million allocated for medical, dental, mental health and pharmaceutical services for those in the County correctional facilities was quite shocking," Gunstra wrote. "There are many county residents who have NOT committed crimes that are deserving of $11 million of medical, dental and mental health care, who deserve such generous support from the county coffers."

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