The Pierce County Sheriff’s Department began contracting out medical care at the county jail Feb. 1 in a cost-cutting move that laid off 15 full-time workers.
The contract will save the department about $600,000 this year, Undersheriff Eileen Bisson said.
The department is paying Conmed Inc. $4.3 million to provide medical services at the jail for the last 11 months of this year. The contract will be renewed annually for the next four years, unless the county or Conmed opts out.
The Sheriff’s Department has been under pressure to reduce costs to deal with the jail’s declining revenue and population. Both have plunged since January 2013, when Tacoma shifted its misdemeanor bookings to Fife’s jail, where rates are cheaper.
The sheriff’s Corrections Bureau was funded for 38 full-time nurses, physician assistants and other workers providing medical services before Conmed took over operating the jail’s medical clinic. By early this year, 21 vacancies had occurred as staff members left for other jobs after the department decided to contract out their work.
Those laid off were: the health services manager, two physician assistants, four registered nurses, seven licensed practical nurses and an administrative assistant. Conmed rehired one RN and two LPNs, Bisson said.
Mental-health services for the jail still will be provided by staff members working for the Sheriff’s Department.
The jail’s medical director, Dr. Miguel Balderrama, will continue working for the Sheriff’s Department to provide continuity during the transition, Bisson said. Balderrama is paid $189,080 a year, making him the county’s second-highest paid employee behind Medical Examiner Thomas Clark.
Bisson said providing better equipment and technology - not saving money - were primary reasons for entering into the contract.
“There is some cost savings,” she said. “We have the ability to be a little bit more up to date with our equipment.”
As an example, Bisson cited a more advanced, portable X-ray machine that Conmed has added.
The switch also reduces the department’s workload monitoring medical workers and filling vacancies, she said.
County Council Chairman Dan Roach said Friday he didn’t know enough about Conmed to comment on the change but said he expects to learn more when the Sheriff’s Department briefs the council on the contract Feb. 24.
The county’s medical staff members, who were union employees on the county payroll, were told in January 2013 that the Corrections Bureau was looking into contracting the work they do. Dylan Carlson, who represented medical staff for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, could not be reached for comment.
Conmed, based in Hanover, Md., contracts with about 50 jails and detention centers in the United States. In Washington state, it provides medical services for several county jails, including in Kitsap and Clark counties.
Conmed was the top choice of a county panel that reviewed three finalists for the contract.
Bisson said Conmed had about 37 positions at the jail to fill, including extra-hire staff members who work when needed.
Conmed didn’t cut anyone’s pay and hired all its workers for the jail from the local area, said Patrick Cummiskey, spokesman for Conmed’s parent company, Correct Care Solutions.
The company already has added services, such as a new detoxification program, Cummiskey said in an email. It also plans to add new technology systems “which will improve efficiencies as well as program accountability,” he said.