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Officials talk about prison medical bills

Friday, December 23, 2005

CHARLESTON -- The Mississippi County Detention Center may soon lose some of its appeal for inmates.

County commissioners from Scott County met with Mississippi County officials Thursday during the regular Mississippi County Commission meeting to discuss medical bills incurred by county jail inmates.

"Honestly - it's not our bill and it's not your bill," said Presiding Commissioner Jim Blumenberg to Scott County's commissioners.

With county officials already struggling to balance their respective county's budgets, unanticipated medical costs are hard to bear for either commission.

"It's a bad situation," Blumenberg said. "It's a costly deal."

New rules pertaining to change of venues that went into effect in August did not end up changing things so sheriffs could refuse prisoners as hoped, according to commissioners.

The Mississippi County Detention Center currently has around 20 prisoners from Scott County, according to Bob Whitehead, administrator of the Mississippi County Detention Center - 15 on change of venues and another five or six sent by the city of Sikeston.

Commissioners had originally scheduled their meeting together to negotiate payment for two Scott County prisoners who incurred medical bills while housed at the Mississippi County Detention Center.

During a meeting with Circuit Judge David A. Dolan, however, Mississippi County commissioners were advised that "whoever has them at the time of the accident is responsible," according to Blumenberg. He said before talking to Dolan they had already come to the same conclusion by reviewing statutes. Whitehead estimated over half his facility's medical costs are related to accidents.

Mississippi County, then, will be responsible for the $18,000 bill for the Scott County prisoner who received a broken jaw from other inmates, allegedly because he was being held on statutory rape charges, while at the Mississippi County Detention Center.

Pre-existing conditions, however, are the responsibility of the county that had them first. Accordingly, Scott County will pick up the $4,600 tab for a Scott County prisoner that received medical attention for a prior condition while housed at Mississippi County.

Scott County Commissioner Jamie Burger said he didn't want any hard feelings to develop between commissioners over this issue. He said with Scott County now contracting for medical services at their jail, some of the problems should be alleviated.

Scott County Presiding Commissioner Martin Priggel said for future change of venue prisoners from Scott County, are encouraged to call for more information on the prisoner.

Commissioners from both counties agreed the hospital should be willing to negotiate discounts on bills incurred by prisoners.

Until the last couple of months, Mississippi County had simply paid medical bills but has now started negotiating with hospital officials on bills.

"We're not going to foot the whole bill," Blumenberg said. Commissioners suggested that when discounting the cost to counties, the hospital should seek to recover the discounted amounts from the prisoners.

"We're just going to have to iron it out," Blumenberg said, "and ask the hospital to work with us like the insurance companies."

Blumenberg said while county officials are not the ones signing on the line when prisoners get medical attention, they don't want to stick the hospital with the entire bill. "We don't want to dump on them, either," he said.

Commissioners discussed the possibility of all six of them gong to meet with hospital officials.

Mississippi County Commissioner Martin Lucas suggested sending jail administrators but Priggel said that isn't really an option for Scott County: "We don't really have an administrator."

Whitehead said since they must continue to accept change of venue prisoners, a policy change may be in order for his jail.

"We'll just handle change of venues differently," he said. "We may lock them down." Whitehead suggested putting change of venue prisoners in their own cell or cell block until their medical state and criminal history are reviewed.

With Scott County having the newer jail facility now, Mississippi County officials agreed it may be their jail's policies that are making their facility a magnet for change of venues.

For example, inmates in the Mississippi County Detention Center are allowed to smoke cigarettes in a secure fenced-in area outside - a privilege prisoners in the Scott County Jail don't have.

"Maybe we ought to change our policy on smoking," suggested Mississippi County Commissioner Homer Oliver. He recalled that the Detention Center was opened as a non-smoking facility but the previous sheriff smoked a pipe so it was changed.

Whitehead said they are indeed considering changing back to a non-smoking facility. "We can change that fast," said Mississippi County Sheriff Keith Moore. "I'm all for it because I don't smoke."

While selling cigarettes to prisoners from the commissary is a profitable venture for the county and tends to keep prisoners calmer, Whitehead said he is sure prisoners will purchase something else if cigarettes aren't available and other methods can be used to pacify them.

"We're not going to run a country club jail anymore," Whitehead said.

In other business Thursday:

* The county will have a $30,000 increase in its workers compensation insurance premiums for next year.

County Clerk Junior DeLay said the increase is due to two factors: an industry-wide increase in rates ranging from around 10 to 20 percent, and a change in the county's accident experience modifier.

* The courthouse floor should be somewhat shinier next year.

Commissioners agreed to hire Richard Griggs of Charleston to put a new coat of wax on the courthouse floors over the New Year's holiday weekend.

County officials received several cost estimates for stripping and waxing with Griggs offering the lowest price while advising the floors don't really need to be stripped yet.

As Griggs bid only $1,300 to strip and wax the courthouse's floors, the cost for just waxing should be under $1,000, Blumenberg said.