County jail medical bills strain budget

OKEECHOBEE — Hospital bills for nine Okeechobee County jail inmates have topped half a million dollars, putting a strain on the budget for the Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Department.

Medical bills for jail inmates year to date total $848,675.79. The current budget for hospital and medical expense for the jail is $131,267.

At the Thursday Okeechobee County Commission meeting, Sheriff Noel Stephen said the budget was based on the average annual medical expenses for those incarcerated in the county jail. The total expenses for medical in the previous five fiscal years was $639,082. In this current year alone, that five year total has been surpassed by $209,593.79.

The sheriff said they realized early on that the medical bills were soaring well above the budgeted amount, and did what they could to reduce expenses in other areas.

The bulk of this year’s expense was due to nine inmates whose medical expenses totaled $592,318.60, he said. One of those inmates was a murder suspect who was shot by deputies.

And as high as the medical bills are, they could be worse.

“As members of the Florida Sheriffs we give our medical bills to Prime Health Services and they go to the medical provider and they negotiate costs,” said the sheriff. “Prime Health Services has helped us with 15 to 80 percent reduction in the bills, including their commission.”

The commission voted to authorize the sheriff to spend the collected “due to” monies of $127,907 from Fiscal Year 2016/2017 to offset some of the medical expenses. These funds are paid to the sheriff’s office for services such as senior meals, SSA Prisoner Incentive, Florida DOC, clerk investigative fees, witness fees, fingerprints, crash reports, animal control adoptions and impounds, donations and interest earned.

The sheriff said with the epidemic of abuse of opioid drugs, the county jail has more sickly inmates that they saw in previous years.

“We are providing those medical services to the inmates that are medically necessary,” he said.

The sheriff said they have a contract with Raulerson Hospital for some services, which helps save money. “We would like to see if we can negotiate some kind of contract with Columbia or Lawnwood for services we cannot obtain at Raulerson,” he added.

In a related matter, the county commission agreed to continue the Pretrial Services agreement with St. Lucie County. This program allows some of those awaiting trial to be placed on supervised release with an ankle monitor. The judges determine who qualifies for the program.

“Your $80,000 is saving you almost half a million dollars,” said county administrator Robbie Chartier.

In 2016, there were 98 defendants in the program, which saved approximately 7,660 “bed days” at the jail. The cost of keeping an inmate at the jail is about $70 per day. Mrs. Chartier said the court system is increasing the use of this program, which also helps relieve overcrowding in the county jail. Inmates on the ankle monitor program stay at home and can keep working to support their families. They are responsible for their own medical bills.

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