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Lake commissioners, sheriff clash over county jail health care costs

Lake commissioners, sheriff clash over county jail health care costs

Lake County Jail

The Lake County Jail is shown. The Lake County Board of Commissioners and Sheriff Oscar Martinez Jr. are clashing over the cost and quality of inmate health care at the jail.

CROWN POINT — The Lake County Commissioners are fed up with how Sheriff Oscar Martinez Jr. is seeking to spend taxpayer dollars, while the sheriff is equally fed up with what he sees as political games by the commissioners that he says are endangering public safety.

The long-simmering dispute between the county's three-member executive and its top law enforcement official came to a boil Wednesday when the sheriff's office proposed renewing its annual contract with Correctional Health Indiana Inc. (CHI) for inmate medical services at the Lake County Jail at a cost of $6.1 million, a 5% increase compared to 2021, and 20% more than 2020.

The commissioners said they don't oppose providing needed medical services to county jail inmates. But they strenuously objected to the sheriff not shopping around for other providers and blocking an attempt by the commissioners to understand the true medical needs at the jail.

Commissioner Mike Repay, D-Hammond, said the commissioners last year asked the National Commission on Correctional Health Care (NCCHC), a nonprofit organization that evaluates health services available to jail and prison inmates, to visit the Lake County Jail and determine whether the level of medical services are appropriate for the facility.

The Indiana Department of Health is urging all Hoosiers to get vaccinated against COVID-19, particuarly the more infectious delta variant

Repay believes CHI may be excessively relying on doctors and other costly health professionals to treat inmates when nurses or other licensed providers may be capable of providing sufficient services at a lower cost.

But Repay said he's been unable to confirm that suspicion because the sheriff refused to allow NCCHC evaluators to visit the jail, leaving the commissioners largely in the dark when it comes to deciding whether to spend a quarter-million dollars every other week on jail health care.

"You can't come up and tell us that you've negotiated this great contract to service the inmates and then not let us have a chance to look at the conditions, the performance," Repay said.

"We can't effectively do our job at the Board of Commissioners without good, accurate information."

Martinez said the evaluators were kept out because nearly everyone was kept out of the jail amid the COVID-19 pandemic due to the potential for increased spread of the coronavirus.

He said CHI was instrumental in getting the Lake County Jail out of federal oversight and he sees no reason to dump the company now that Department of Justice minders have exited the jail.

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"We are happy with CHI and would like to extend the current contract or renew our contract. Working with CHI allows us to maintain a continuum of service at the highest level in our medical department," Martinez said.

"It’s overwhelmingly clear that this is strictly a political move by Commissioner Repay that threatens to jeopardize the operations of the department and the safety of officers and the public," Martinez said.

The commissioners unanimously agreed to defer acting on the CHI contract renewal until their Dec. 15 meeting in hope of reaching a compromise with the sheriff.

They also postponed action on the sheriff's request to purchase a $770,060 Lake Michigan patrol boat and to sign a three-year lease for storage space in Crown Point to house all of the sheriff's recent vehicle and equipment purchases.

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