New contract promises to improve mental health care in prisons

Ventura County Sheriff’s officials hope to reduce recidivism and prevent suicides among inmates of local prisons under an enhanced contract for inmate health care approved last week.

The County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved the five-year agreement with Nashville-based Wellpath on Tuesday after Deputy Sheriff Rob Davidson outlined planned improvements in patient care.

The contract, which takes effect July 1, will cost $17.7 million in the first year. The pact is expected to grow to around $18 million in future years to account for inflation.

Among the highlights:

  • Medical, dental and mental health staff will increase to 74, up about 25% since last July. Fifteen of those jobs were added Tuesday in the council’s budget for the next fiscal year which begins Friday. The additional staff are needed to operate a health care unit at Todd Road Jail near Santa Paula, which is due to open early next year.
  • The availability of mental health care delivered by licensed clinicians will increase from 16 hours one day to 24 hours a day at Ventura Main Jail and about double that to 16 hours a day at Todd Road Jail.
  • Wellpath must pay penalties if it fails to meet the standards of patient care set out in the contract. For example, the company must pay the county $1,500 each time a patient with symptoms is not assessed by a mental health professional within 24 hours of arriving in jail.
  • Individual counseling will be provided to inmates, consistent with the statewide trend.
  • Responsibility for the ongoing monitoring of suicidal inmates will be transferred from security staff to medical staff.

Davidson said the contract represents a major improvement in the quality of care for inmates with mental health issues.

“In our prisons, I’ll be honest, we do very, very good medical care,” he told the board. “Our challenge is in the area of ​​mental health. We really believe that the area of ​​mental health is at the root of some of our recidivism.”

Public defender Claudia Bautista, whose office represents many inmates, said she supports the intent of the sheriff’s plan.

“Will it work? I don’t know,” she said in an interview on Friday. “What has been done in the past is not working.”

Bautista said ideally people with mental illness should not be in jail. Still, she said the proposal was breaking new ground in the county.

“It’s a multidisciplinary approach for people who come to their facility with a psychiatric crisis,” she said. “This level of response is truly unprecedented here in Ventura. That’s why I’m optimistic. The reality is that prisons house people with mental illness and something needs to be done to help them.”

Bautista was especially pleased to see that the sheriff’s office intends to minimize the use of padded security cells.

Actively suicidal people are isolated in cells and checked every 15 minutes to prevent them from harming themselves until they can be stabilized. Sheriff officials said the state requires prisons to have such cells, but hope they can move away from them with additional clinical treatment.

About 150 of the approximately 1,300 inmates at the two prisons are diagnosed with serious mental illness, Davidson said. About 40% of the entire prison population is believed to be taking some type of medication for mental illness, Sheriff Bill Ayub reported.

Ayub said he led an effort to improve health services after noticing an unusually high number of inmate deaths in 2020. In the first phase of improvements last fall, the county added 2.5 million to its Wellpath contract to pay for more nurses, therapists and other health care. nursing staff.

Check: County expands inmate health services following rise in deaths

Six inmates died in 2020, half of them by suicide, according to records from the county medical examiner’s office.

Five deaths were reported in 2021, all from natural or accidental causes. One death, which was determined to be from natural causes, has been reported so far this year.

Ayub said sheriff’s officials weren’t pressured by attorneys to make the changes, but decided to do it themselves.

“It was an introspective look,” he said.

The sheriff’s office is bringing service levels up to the standards recommended by the National Commission on Correctional Health Care, which Ayub described as “the gold standard.”

Last year, the board of oversight hired the commission to audit and monitor inmate care. Wellpath must pay $25,000 if the prisons are not accredited within 18 months, according to the contract.

NaphCare of Alabama was the only other company to submit a proposal. Officials with the county’s behavioral health department, which provides outpatient community services, decided not to submit a proposal to support mental health care in prisons.

After meeting with the sheriff, Behavioral Health decided it was best for a single entity to manage both mental and physical health needs for the benefit of the care of the whole person, Deputy Director Loretta Denering said.

Ayub is expected to step down in January after losing the June 7 election to Cmdr. James Frihoff. During Tuesday’s board hearing, Fryhoff indicated that he would support efforts to improve health care in prisons.

Kathleen Wilson covers Ventura County government, including county health care, politics, and social services. Contact her at kathleen.wilson@vcstar.com or 805-437-0271.