One of nation’s largest jail healthcare companies officially takes over in SLO County

San Luis Obispo County officials gathered Friday to usher in a “new chapter” in the history of the controversial County Jail, formally handing over inmate healthcare duties to a contractor.

Wellpath, a Tennessee-based company that specializes in providing medical and mental health care as well as dental services for patients in correctional settings, formally took over responsibilities at the facility at 12 a.m. Friday.

“The transition is occurring as we speak still, but they have hit the ground running,” Sheriff Ian Parkinson said at a ribbon-cutting ceremony in front of the jail Friday. “I’m really looking forward to what’s to come for our healthcare within the jail.”

The transfer of responsibility comes after roughly two years of heavy scrutiny and calls for reforms in how the county treats inmates following a series of high-profile in-custody deaths of inmates with chronic physical and mental health needs.

Those include a 36-year-old schizophrenic man who died two years ago after being left in a restraint chair for 46 hours.

Since January 2012, 13 inmates have died while in custody, and the jail currently has the sixth-highest inmate death rate in the state. The FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice have opened separate investigations into allegations of civil rights violations and the jail’s standards of inmate care, which remain ongoing.

The county’s own health agency has historically provided inmate care, but several factors have led to retention problems and a shortage of qualified staff to adequately serve the jail’s daily average of about 600 inmates.

“The component we were missing was the experience and the management of a very difficult task of providing healthcare in a facility,” Parkinson said.

With Wellpath taking over, county officials predict the new level of care provided at the jail will not only exceed California minimum standards, but a new organizational structure will enable officials at different levels to respond immediately to emergencies, possibly saving lives.

The contractor’s performance will be overseen by the county’s chief medical officer — a position created just a year ago — and an executive committee of the county’s top brass, including Parkinson and County Chief Administrative Officer Wade Horton.

Wellpath is now one of the nation’s largest contract healthcare providers for correctional facilities after it formed out of a merger in November between Correct Care Solutions and Correctional Medical Group Companies.

A news release from the Sheriff’s Office says that Correctional Medical Group Companies has long served as one of the major healthcare providers for California jails, and with the merger, Wellpath’s roughly 14,000 clinicians and professionals serve about 270,000 patients in 37 states across the U.S. and Australia.

Wellpath Chief Operations Officer Cindy Watson said at Friday’s ceremony that Wellpath will have a transitional team of about 50 additional staffers on-site with its local staff for the next 45 days to ensure all goes smooth.

“Even though we at Wellpath have done transitions like this for decades, I think that this is probably one of the most organized, well-coordinated implementations and transitions that we’ve done ever,” Watson said.

The county board of supervisors unanimously approved Wellpath’s contract in September. The $6.7 million deal for the first year includes medical, behavioral health, and dental services for all inmates, as well as a jail-based mental health competency treatment program.

“Last year was a tough year, not just for our folks here in the Sheriff’s Office and custody, but for the entire community,” County Supervisor Adam Hill said Friday. “I think it’s really hard to capture how much work, from all the people involved, has gone into this.”

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