MUSKEGON, Mich. (WOOD) — Muskegon County leaders say the death of an inmate who suffered 17 seizures in the jail is prompting them to take a closer look at the multimillion-dollar contract with an often-sued private company that provides medical care at the correctional center.
“I do think, considering what happened and what the history of that medical organization is, I think we need to really seriously look at the issues of safety and making good choices,” County Commissioner Marcia Hovey-Wright told Target 8.
“I’m sure we’ll be looking at the contract in detail,” she said.
The Muskegon County Board of Commissioners signed a contract with Correct Care Solutions, now known as Wellpath, in November 2017.
Target 8 obtained a copy of the contract through a public records request. It shows the county paying the Nashville, Tennessee-based company about $1.3 million a year for two years for coverage at the jail and county juvenile facility.
The contract expires in October, with an option for three more years at a five-year cost of $6.7 million.
“I think the care should have been better regardless of what they’re paid,” Hovey-Wright said.
Bulthouse, 39, died on April 4 after suffering 17 seizures in a close-supervision cell within view of the guard station.
The sheriff’s department had closed its internal investigation into the death, finding no wrongdoing. But Sheriff Michael Poulin reopened the case in response to a Target 8 investigation that found a jail deputy had watched the last 11 seconds of one of Bulthouse’s seizures, then walked away.
Bulthouse suffered 12 more seizures over the next two-and-a-half hours, without getting medical help, before dying in a puddle of his own urine.
An emergency medical technician from Wellpath had told guards that Bulthouse had faked a seizure three days earlier, after he tried to escape. A Wellpath nurse also told jail deputies that Bulthouse didn’t need to go to the hospital.
Muskegon County Board of Commissioners Chairwoman Susie Hughes said she was waiting for the sheriff’s investigation. When asked if the death would lead the board to reconsider the Wellpath contract, she said: “It’s having us take a closer look at everything right now.”
Hovey-Wright, a former psychotherapist, questioned Wellpath’s policy against giving the drug Klonopin to inmates. Bulthouse had been taking the drug to control anxiety for years before the jail cut him off abruptly.
The American Addiction Centers says quitting Klonopin without consulting a doctor is dangerous, as it can lead to hallucinations, suicidal thoughts, seizures and death.
“It was a drug that was working for him,” Hovey-Wright said.
County Administrator Mark Eisenbarth said the county board wasn’t aware of Correct Care’s history when it signed the contract two years ago. That history includes 1,400 federal lawsuits over a decade, involving deaths and allegations of poor care, and some big payouts.
“We’re finding that out I think as you have been finding it out in the last few weeks,” Eisenbarth said. “We’ve been hearing that as well.”
Wellpath is the nation’s biggest provider of health care to prisons, jails and immigration detention centers, with revenues of up to $1.5 billion a year, according to published reports.
The Muskegon County Jail is among at least 11 counties in Michigan that pay Wellpath to care for prisoners. That also includes Allegan and Berrien counties.
In previous years, Muskegon County paid local doctors to help care for inmates, but that didn’t provide 24-hour care, said County Commissioner I. John Snider II, chairman of the county’s Courts and Public Safety Committee.
Under the contract, Wellpath staffs the jail around-the-clock with the equivalent of 11 full-time care providers, including registered nurses, licensed practical nurses or EMTs, a medical assistant and a clinical coordinator. That also includes a physician for seven hours a week split between the jail and the juvenile facility.
Snider, who questions Wellpath’s price tag, said Bulthouse’s death is another reason to reconsider the contract.
The county administrator said the sheriff is reviewing the contract and will make a recommendation to the county board.
They are studying whether HealthWest, the former Muskegon County Mental Health agency, could provide medical care, the administrator said. HealthWest currently provides mental health care at the jail.
A Wellpath spokeswoman did not respond to Target 8’s request for comment. The sheriff also didn’t respond.