Health services in prison, a “nightmare”

By Patti Brandt Burgess
The Eagle of Records

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — The Grand Traverse County Commission could approve a new company on Monday to provide medical and mental health services at the jail.

The company, Advanced Correctional Healthcare, submitted an offer of $1.223 million for services from January 1 through the end of 2023.

The prison’s current provider, County Health Support Services, submitted an offer of $2.231 million — well above the prison’s health services budget of $1.326 million.

Their offer also lacked detail and was unprofessional, with several formatting and grammatical errors, according to a letter from Capt. Chris Barsheff, the prison administrator, to the county council. The letter was included in the package for the special commissioners’ meeting at 8am on Monday, November 14.

The county meeting was moved to Monday from its usual Wednesday slot due to deer shotgun season, which opens Nov. 15.

CHSS took over from former provider Wellpath in February, but never hired people to provide mental health services that were part of the contract and had budget overruns of up to $400,000, which the county refused to pay.

Along with these financial and staffing shortages at the prison, the death of an inmate on Wednesday is being investigated as a possible suicide.

Sheriff Tom Bensley said it was too early to say whether the mental health services the prison contracted with CHSS and failed to provide could have prevented Smith’s death.

Some departments have improved on the medical side of the operation, Bensley said.

“Honestly, from the managerial side, it was a nightmare,” he added. “It’s been a pretty hectic 10 months.”

ACH and CHSS are the two companies that responded to the tender requirements. Two others, Tampa, Fla.-based TrueCare24 and Pennsylvania-based Diamond Pharmacy Services, were not considered because they failed to attend a mandatory pre-tender meeting.

The board could still consider these ventures, but a committee made up of a prison and county administrator, a community member with a mental health background, and a nurse from the GTC health department recommended ACH.

Tennessee-based ACH provides adult and juvenile prison health services in 19 states and 38 counties in Michigan. They have been in business for 20 years, compared to CHSS, which formed in the fall of 2021 specifically to provide services to Grand Traverse County.

When company references were contacted, mixed reviews were received, according to Barsheff’s letter. Some shared concerns about ACH’s inadequate staffing and ineffective management, the letter said. Some said the company was not meeting its contractual obligations and needed constant monitoring.

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The ACH proposal includes one practitioner working up to four hours per week, three full-time and two part-time nurses, and one qualified mental health practitioner.

Extras that could be added later include a discharge planner and an addictions professional. The two would be in jail for up to eight hours a week, with an additional cost of $2,789 per month or $33,462 per year for each position.

Another extra would have staff in the jail 24/7, driving the cost of the one-year contract up to $1.490 million.

Bensley said it would be wonderful to have healthcare workers in jail around the clock. “We would love that,” the sheriff said. “There are so many benefits for our inmates and for our staff.”

But it’s expensive and over budget, he noted, in addition to staffing issues reported by some facilities the company has contracts with.

“We have staffing issues with our current business,” he said. “Everyone has personnel issues.”

Bensley said that depending on how the business operates, the county may later increase the contract amount for additional services.

“If we can turn that into 24 hours, that would be wonderful,” he said.

On Thursday, the sheriff reported that prison staff found the body of Michael Shaun Smith at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday. The 34-year-old Traverse City man’s death is being investigated by Michigan State Police.

“We will wait for the MSP to complete their investigation before taking the next step,” Bensley said on Friday.

The county jail has been under public pressure for many years to provide better mental health services to inmates. There were two suicides at the prison as well as 51 suicide attempts of varying severity over a seven-year period, before Barsheff took over administration of the prison.

Barsheff said he is committed to providing better care for inmates and has implemented the Stepping Up program, which allows prison staff to complete mental health and substance abuse assessments upon booking.

He advocated for mobile services that would have a law enforcement officer and a mental health worker traveling to a person’s home to handle mental health crises that could otherwise land people in jail or the emergency room.

Barsheff also advocated for an adult and youth diversion center, something that is in the works in the community.

County administrators are currently working with county administrators from Crawford, Leelanau, Missaukee, Roscommon and Wexford to rewrite an enabling agreement for the Northern Lakes Community Mental Health Authority.

Bensley said county administrator Nate Alger was seeking the agreement to provide details about mental health services at the jail.

“We hope for improved services when this is written,” Bensley said.

Northern Lakes provides crisis services to the prison and for two years held a contract to provide treatment for people with mild to moderate mental health and substance use disorders. This contract was terminated when it was found that there were not enough inmates and many were waiting weeks for services.


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