Weber County jail healthcare

Chief Deputy Aaron Perry of the Weber County Sheriff's Office describes the proposal to turn provision of healthcare services at the county's jails over to a private firm, VitalCore Health Strategies of Topeka, Kansas, during a Weber County Commission meeting Tuesday, March 17, 2020.

OGDEN — A contract provider will provide health care to the inmates at Weber County‘s jails for the first time, costing the county more money but providing more comprehensive coverage, the motor behind the initiative says.

“We have a need to improve the services in our facility,” Chief Deputy Aaron Perry of the Weber County Sheriff’s Office told county commissioners Tuesday. “In my opinion, we are under the national standard in care that we are providing.”

In the end, county commissioners approved the proposal put to them by Perry — a $3.3 million contract with VitalCore Health Strategies, a private Topeka, Kansas-based firm that provides health care services in jails. Currently, county employees provide care for the 1,000 or so inmates at the main jail off 12th Street in Ogden and at the Kiesel work-release facility in downtown Ogden.

VitalCore is to take over starting April 2, and the deal — in the works for more than a year — represents an increase of about $1.14 million over what the county pays to provide health care in the jails. But Perry said the extra money is worth it. Current staffing allows for about 24 hours worth of care per week for the inmates at the two jails by the 15 nurses on staff. That will increase to around 40 hours per week and a staffing equivalent of about 17 duty nurses, he said.

What’s more, the deal provides for an additional 12 hours a week of care by a psychiatrist and one of the nurses will have expertise in psychiatry. “I have a tremendous concern about mental health,” said Commissioner Jim Harvey.

Though the contract cost represents a jump over what the county currently pays, Perry said the new arrangement will reduce the need to transfer inmates to hospitals, a costly endeavor. That will result in some savings, though Perry couldn’t pinpoint a precise estimate.

Weber County becomes only the second county in Utah to outsource provision of health care of its inmates to the private sector after Cache County, Perry said. Officials had considered keeping healthcare in house, but the offerings are much more comprehensive in going with VitalCore. Building up internally, he said, would have taken too long.

“We constitutionally have a requirement to take care of these inmates. This is an improvement we need to make,” Perry said.

Going with a private firm potentially reduces county liability, Perry said, a point Commissioner Gage Froerer seized on. He’s been the county commissioner liaison to the sheriff’s office in the matter.

Given the complexity of healthcare and the requirements jail operators face, the county probably can’t provide a level of care “that would give us a pure path forward if we were taken to court. I think there’s a good chance that we would have some liability,” Froerer said. “We just don’t have the resources available to rise to this level of care that we can contract for. I’m a true believer that sometimes we can contract for services less than we can do that ourselves.”

VitalCore has said the current nursing staff can stay on as is and wages won’t be cut.

Both Harvey and Froerer voted for the change. Commissioner Scott Jenkins didn’t attend Tuesday’s meeting.

The probe into provision of healthcare of jail inmates was an initiative of Sheriff Ryan Arbon, who took office in January 2019.

Contact reporter Tim Vandenack at tvandenack@standard.net, follow him on Twitter at @timvandenack or like him on Facebook at Facebook.com/timvandenackreporter.

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