County sued by former jail health care provider it stopped paying for ‘deplorable’ services

The newer wing of Pierce County Jail is seen in 2013. The county sued a former jail health care provider, alleging poor quality of care.
The newer wing of Pierce County Jail is seen in 2013. The county sued a former jail health care provider, alleging poor quality of care. Staff file, 2013

Pierce County stopped paying the company that provided its jail medical services in 2014 and 2015, and the business recently went to court to collect.

But the county says it won’t pay for a level of care one of its attorneys said a jury would likely find “morally reprehensible.”

The company, Conmed, provided medical and dental care at the jail starting in February 2014. The county terminated the contract in August 2015, according to court documents. That was about five months after the county started withholding payments, according to Conmed’s lawsuit, filed last month.

Conmed alleges the county said in May 2015 that it would withhold payments only related to vacant positions, then in August of that year refused to pay anything for the company’s services, dating back to April.

The county said it told Conmed it would stop payments until the alleged problems were fixed, and in a counterclaim filed Thursday, argued it’s Conmed that should pay, to reimburse the county for services that were substandard or not provided.

According to court records, the county seeks unspecified damages from the company for services the county didn’t receive, defense costs, the expense of getting replacement health care for inmates, and other losses.

The company, a division of Correct Care Solutions, also seeks unspecified damages. But Conmed wanted $1.5 million in November 2015 for the missing payments, according to the claim for damages it filed against the county as a precursor to the suit.

A company spokesman declined to comment on the litigation when contacted by The News Tribune.

Pierce County Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Dan Hamilton said the county has been named in four lawsuits, due to Conmed’s allegedly negligent care of inmates. And there have been 11 administrative claims for damages filed by inmates, he said, which is the prerequisite to filing a suit.

Inmates allege they were refused requests for medication and diabetic shoes, contracted staph infection and had the wrong tooth pulled, according to some of the claims.

Asked by The News Tribune to look at the lawsuit, University of Washington law professor Steve Calandrillo said the county will need to demonstrate that it didn’t receive the substantial benefit of the medical services that it was promised.

“Pierce County would need to show that Conmed was in ‘material breach of contract’ in order for the county to avoid paying for services under the contract,” he said.

The county appears confident it can show the company’s failures.

“A jury would likely find that CCS/Conmed’s operation of the jail medical clinic was incompetent, unprofessional and morally reprehensible,” deputy prosecutor Grace Kingman wrote the company in September 2015.

In the letter, she detailed the company’s alleged poor performance and said it had failed to make good on promises to fix the problems.

She said there were staffing shortages, delays in care, poor record keeping, a failure to triage, delayed reports, almost weekly staff turnover, staff who lacked training, inmates who didn’t get their medication and other problems.

The amount Conmed owes the county for the company’s deficiencies is far more than what the county could owe the company, she wrote.

“A lawsuit against Pierce County would flush out Conmed’s deplorable performance in running the medical clinic, which would not only result in considerable cost and embarrassment to CCS/Conmed, but would also provide evidence to support claims filed by other institutions who suffered the same disappointment as Pierce County,” Kingman wrote.