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Ventura County

Inmates' Health Pact OKd

Jails: Supervisors renew medical care contract with Monterey-based group that has received praise and criticism.

January 30, 2002|MARGARET TALEV | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ventura County renewed its contract Tuesday with the company that provides health care for local jail inmates, despite lawsuits and criticism in recent years over inmate care.

Acting unanimously and without discussion, the Board of Supervisors awarded a five-year contract worth about $26 million to Monterey-based California Forensic Medical Group.

That contract covers basic medical care to 1,500 inmates and adults on work furlough as well as 220 juveniles in the county's custody.

"We're delighted to have the opportunity to continue," company Vice President Elaine Hustedt said. "Anyone operating in this environment is always open for criticism, and that's a good thing. It keeps everybody on their toes. But we have done a good job. Providing good health care to our inmates is our No. 1 priority."

The company has treated local inmates since 1987 and provides care for inmates in 21 California counties. It has received praise from local law enforcement and medical officials and a state organization that rates jail medical care.

But it has drawn criticism for its handling of two cases in the 1990s in which inmates died from what began as minor infections. The families of both inmates sued for wrongful death, and the medical group's insurer settled the cases for a combined $1.5 million.

Meanwhile, a Times analysis found Ventura County's inmate death rate from 1987 to 2000 was the fourth highest among the state's 20 largest jail systems, with 1.68 deaths per 1,000 inmates. That rate was exceeded by Los Angeles and San Francisco counties, which do not contract with California Forensic Medical Group, and Stanislaus County, which does contract with the group.

Local Superior Court Judge Art Gutierrez has said the company seems "to dodge the issue as far as medical care." And last year a former female inmate sued, alleging the company's policies prevented her from obtaining an abortion. That case is pending, but both California Forensic and the county have said the action is without merit.

Supervisors said they were pleased with the company's overall track record and relied on Sheriff Bob Brooks and his staff members' recommendation. Law enforcement officials recommended renewing the contract rather than going with a Nashville-based competitor that is the nation's largest provider of jail health care.

"My concern is that inmates are provided with good, sound medical care and I've been assured that that's true," Supervisor Judy Mikels said.

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