By Kristal Dixon | The Atlanta Journal-Constitution | January 13, 2020
On the heels of several in-custody deaths within a 12-month time span, the Cobb County Sheriff’s Office is searching for a new company to provide medical services for inmates at the Adult Detention Center.
WellStar Health System has been providing medical services to inmates at the jail since 1998. However, the company notified the sheriff’s office in 2018 that it wanted to “move away” from this practice, said Sheriff’s Office Commander Robert Quigley.
The jail run by Sheriff Neil Warren has had seven in-custody deaths since December 2018. The Cobb County Medical Examiner’s Office has determined the causes of death for all but two inmates: Kevil Wingo and Christopher Hart. The manner of death of another inmate, Steven Davis, was ruled to be natural, but the Medical Examiner’s Office noted the cause was undetermined.
The deaths, along with a month-long lockdown, have sparked criticism from residents and families, local activists and civil rights organizations, which are calling on the sheriff to address their concerns about medical care for inmates and jail staffing levels.
So far, Warren has refused to comment publicly to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on the deaths or concerns raised by the public. He also refused to comment for this article.
While Sheriff Warren is an elected official with authority over his office, Cobb County commissioners control funding for his department’s budget. The cost the Sheriff’s Office has spent on medical services over the past five years has risen steadily, according to figures provided by the Cobb County Finance Department.
In 2015, $7.7 million was spent by the Sheriff’s Office on inmate medical services. In 2016 and 2017, the cost swelled to around $9.6 million each year. The number continued to climb in 2018, with the agency spending $10.3 million on inmate medical services. Last year, the sheriff’s office’s expenditure for this service jumped to $13.2 million.
The cost to provide health care to inmates has grown over the years due in part to the county providing “medical care (for) an aging population, the ever-growing mental health needs, and the severity of the illness/medical issues of inmates each year,” Sheriff’s Office spokesman Glenn Daniel said in a written response to questions submitted by the AJC.
Quigley said the Sheriff’s Office is working with the county’s purchasing department to find a replacement for WellStar’s services. A request for proposals for medical services has already generated several responses from medical providers that are under review, Quigley said.
“WellStar continues to provide health services at the facility and we do not anticipate any interruptions in inmate medical services,” he added. “WellStar continues to work closely with us during this transition. We anticipate having a provider identified and under contract in the coming weeks.”
Leo Reichert, executive vice president and general counsel for WellStar, said more than 70 WellStar employees have provided services such as health screenings of new inmates, management of diseases such as high blood pressure and diabetes, urgent care for illnesses like colds, cuts and sore throats, and referrals to hospitals.
Cobb is the only jail where WellStar has provided care, he added. Reichert said the company will help the Sheriff’s Office with the transition to a new provider once its contract expires this month.
While she and her colleagues will not oversee the selection of a new provider, Cobb County Commissioner Lisa Cupid said she hopes the company selected to provide medical care for inmates will comply with “best practices in that industry.”
The American Civil Liberties of Georgia in December asked county commissioners to pass a resolution directing Sheriff Warren to ensure families have access to relatives in custody, to create a citizens review board and to explain the in-custody deaths. Cobb commissioners have yet to consider those requests.
Cupid told the AJC that she reached out to the Sheriff’s Office for details about the conditions at the jail. The commissioner said the department was initially responsive, but later told her that “they would not entertain any additional communication about the conditions of their facility.”
“I find that the unwillingness to have an open conversation about this is challenging and that is to no one’s benefit,” she said.