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Jailer’s love saga comes full circle

fr vestalWho knows what Anita Vestal saw in Jeffrey Miles, or why she sprang him from jail and ran away with him, or how she justified leaving her husband and four young children behind, possibly forever.

Jury deliberating fate of jailer who helped murderer escape

The jury deciding the fate of a former Swain County jailer who helped a murderer escape and then ran away with him to California began deliberating Tuesday morning (Dec. 3).

The how-to of a jail break

It was a fairly simple inside job in the end, one easily borrowed from the playbook of any Hollywood jailbreak.

Anita Vestal was just a novice jailer, with less than six months on the job at the Swain County jail. But she single-handedly sprang an inmate charged in a bloodbath of a double murder.

Awaiting her fate: Jailer helped murder suspect escape jail, fled with him to California

fr vestalThe jury trial of a Swain County jailer accused of springing a murderer from jail more than four years ago will conclude next week with a certain guilty verdict.

From more inmates to more foster kids, drug abuse hits Haywood in the wallet

Illegal drug abuse and its repercussions are costing Haywood County taxpayers.

An increase in drug use has led to more drug-related arrests. That means more inmates in the county jail, which it turn takes more jailers.

Cherokee hopes to make inmates pay their own way

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians could make the inmates housed in its future jail pay — literally.

Swain’s oversized jail may finally be breaking even, but not for long

Swain County’s oversized jail will lose about one-third of its current inmate population and a sizeable revenue stream when the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians opens a new justice center, complete with its own jail.

Cost savings prompt Swain to outsource inmate health care

Swain County is outsourcing medical care for inmates at the county jail to an independent firm that specializes in the niche field of health care for prisoners, and move the county hopes could save several thousand dollars a year.

The county currently spends between $105,000 and $150,000 on health care for its inmates each year. The new contract with Southern Health Partners could mean a savings of $20,000 annually.

Haywood County wrangles over health care costs

Rising health care costs were the catalyst for two budget decisions by Haywood County commissioners, one that will hopefully save taxpayer money and the other a stopgap measure to keep up with employee health insurance.

Commissioners were forced this week to pay an additional $150,000 into the health insurance fund for retired employees who are under 65 — twice what was budgeted.

Commissioners seemed surprised over the increase.

“Should we be concerned about this?” asked Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick. “We have a liability, and it is going up. It is more than twice the budgeted amount.”

The rise is due mostly to an increase in the number of retired workers under 65. When the county down-sized its work force during the recession, it offered early retirement options to workers under 65, and so the number of former employees in this category has now risen. The county only pays a portion of the health insurance for employees who retire before 65.

Stamey said the cost for retired employee health insurance would almost certainly continue to rise, however. The county also had to pay an additional $27,000 into the fund for employees over 65.

He hopes switching to almost exclusively generic drugs — unless a brand name is prescribed for medical reasons — could provide huge savings and is working on implementing that change.

Commissioners also voted unanimously to enter into a contract with Southern Health Partners to provide medical care for inmates at the county jail.

This fiscal year, the county will spend an estimated $230,000 on medical care for inmates, from dental work to prescription meds to doctor’s check-ups. By contracting out the lion’s share of inmate health care to a private firm, the county hopes to knock about $25,000 off its costs.

The contract with SHP is $134,888 a year but doesn’t cover everything. In addition to doctor and nurse visits, it only covers the first $30,000 in hospital visits, pharmaceuticals and specialist care. After that amount runs out, the county will be on the hook for whatever additional costs are incurred in those areas.

In addition to the contract with SHP, the county is budgeting another $70,000 for inmate medical care.

Commissioners still hope the contract can save a few dollars.

Haywood’s detention facility averages about 75 inmates a night, and the county is legally obligated to provide medical care for inmates under its watch.

While the coming year’s projected savings are modest, commissioners say the contract should help.

“We all hope this will reduce inmate healthcare costs and provide a solution to overall rising costs,” said Commission Chairman Mark Swanger.

— By Scott McLeod

Haywood grapples with medical costs for inmates

Marty Stamey, like any county manager, takes pride in crafting a water-tight budget: one that squares up the minutia of how many reams of computer paper and tanks of gas county employees will use on one side of the ledger with property tax and sales tax flowing in on the other.

But no matter how persnickety Stamey is in his forecasts, there is one irksome line that’s simply a roll of the dice. So he just crosses his fingers, gives it his best guess and hopes like heck a jail inmate won’t need open heart surgery.

Whether it’s a simple cavity or a serious brain aneurism, any medical ailment that befalls inmates while awaiting trial lands on the county’s tab. Even medications inmates are on, whether its insulin for diabetes or blood pressure medicine, are filled courtesy of Haywood County taxpayers.

Haywood isn’t alone. All counties are saddled with what Stamey called perhaps the “most unpredictable” area of the budget.

The county will spend around $230,000 in medical costs for inmates in the current budget year. Most of that is for hospital bills and visits to specialists, for everything from X-rays to dental work. But, the sum also includes an in-house nurse, a retainer for an on-call doctor and prescription meds.

The costs and hassle of managing inmates’ medical needs has become so complicated, however, the county has decided to outsource the job to a private firm.

The firm, Southern Health Partners, manages medical care for inmates at 190 jails and prisons in 13 states. Half of North Carolina’s 100 counties contract with the firm.

Haywood County will pay the company $134,000 a year for basic medical care to inmates. The contract isn’t all-inclusive, however. It mostly includes nurse and physician services provided at the jail, such as health assessments and dispensing daily medications taken by inmates.

The fee only covers the first $30,000 in hospital bills, visits to specialists and medications. Anything more than that, the county will still have to pay for.

The county has earmarked another $70,000 in its budget for that, so when it comes to the total cost of providing medical care for inmates, the county is budgeting $205,000 —compared to $234,000 now — a small net savings.

Regardless, it’s worth it simply not to deal with it, said Haywood Sheriff Bobby Suttles.

“Even if it is a wash or is a little bit more, it is still a good deal in the long run,” Suttles said.

The county still faces a potential legal liability if something goes wrong with the medical care provided to an inmate. The county currently faces a lawsuit from the family of a female inmate who died. She was rushed to the hospital after collapsing, but the family blames the jail for not paying closer attention to her condition and failing to take action sooner.

Contracting with a firm to handle medical care won’t absolve the county from being targeted by such suits, but the firm would at least be named in the suit along with the county as a co-defendant.

“The whole point of this is to get our risk down and our performance up,” said Julie Davis, the county finance officer.

The firm should deliver a higher standard of medical care and expertise. That will hopefully translate to fewer trips to the hospital as the staff brought in by the firm will be able to more confidently handle health care needs.

Stamey said the firm will do a better job determining when an inmate truly needs to go to the hospital.

“Sometimes they probably don’t need to go, but to be on the safe side, we probably send them on to the hospital,” Suttles said.

Jailers also will get training on how to handle medical needs when faced with them.

There could be other hidden savings as well. Any inmate going for medical care has to be accompanied 24-7 by a deputy. When a deputy is taken off his regular assignment to escort an inmate to the hospital, a back-up deputy is called in to cover the hole.

“That’s running me into money,” Suttles said. “I think in the long run it’s going to save.”

Being able to provide more health care at the jail instead of sending the inmates out for care is where the $30,000 in hoped-for savings would come in. Also, helping to save money on hospital bills for inmates is a new health care network for jails, formed under the N.C. Sheriffs’ Association.

Currently, the county has to pay the out-of-pocket rate when taking inmates to the hospital or to see specialists. Under the Inmate Medical Costs Management Plan through the state sheriffs’ association, the county would be eligible for a discounted rate, much like the discounted rate insurance companies are able to negotiate.

There’s roughly 75 inmates bunked up in Haywood’s jail any given night. Some are there serving short sentences, like a week-long stint for DUI convictions. But, most have only been charged with a crime and are still awaiting trial.

If convicted, they are sent off to state prison to serve their time and are no longer a health care liability for the county. If they aren’t violent or considered a flight risk, and they get out on bond while awaiting trial, they likewise aren’t the county’s problem.

It seems to Suttles like more inmates than ever are on medications now or have health problems. Buncombe, Transylvania, Henderson and McDowell counties all contract with the same firm.

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