Fresno County supervisors decided Tuesday to seek bids from private companies for jail medical and psychiatric services.
They were considering a sole-source contract with Tennessee-based Corizon Health Inc., which provides medical services in the Tulare County Jail and juvenile facility.
Instead, supervisors voted to open bidding to private companies, Fresno County employees and the county Department of Public Health.
The supervisors' action Tuesday comes one month after The Bee published Locked In Terror, an investigation of psychiatric treatment of Fresno County Jail inmates. County officials admitted to problems inside the jail but pointed to changes underway.
"We are on a correction path," Supervisor Judy Case said Tuesday.
Supervisors made their decision after hearing from an official with another company that provides medical services and Fresno County employees.
Kip Hallman, chief executive officer with California Forensic Medical Group, a Corizon competitor based in Monterey, said his company provides jail medical services in 27 California counties and also wanted the opportunity to submit a bid.
"Hearing from us and other providers and county staff will give the county a chance to make the best choice," Hallman told supervisors.
Until a bid is approved next year, the county will continue to run the jail and juvenile justice center's medical and psychiatric services.
County officials expect to have an agreement with a contractor signed by June.
But jail nurses and their representatives criticized supervisors for planning to hire a contractor to provide medical services.
"Contracting these services with an outside agency means you, as the board of supervisors, give up all control of the management, the employees, the infrastructure -- everything," said Marcie Bayne, labor representative for the California Nurses Association.
She said private providers offer diminished services and must make a profit, sometimes at the expense of inmates.
Sheri Lawson, a juvenile justice center nurse, said the county is not absolved from legal action if a contractor is sued, and she said she expects less transparency when it comes to jail operations.
"They could leave the county with a mess," she said.
Corizon officials say the company can hold down costs by sharing resources from other sites such as Tulare County, which has a large pool of Corizon employees.
Ken Shemwell, a Corizon consultant, said profit is not the most important motive for the firm. He said the company kept costs down in Santa Barbara County, even though it had "an elevator" in its contract.
He also said that there are penalties for "short-staffing" facilities.
Corizon has been under long-term contracts with Santa Barbara County for 15 years and with Alameda County for 22 years, said E. Patrick Turner, the firm's senior director of business development.
Supervisors also voted to contract for professional staffing services to alleviate staffing shortages in the jail. The staffing services will hire temporary employees to cover vacancies in the jail, which have ranged from eight to 22 professional jobs in the past year.
The jobs are those that the county has had difficulty filling, said John Navarrette, county administrative officer.
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