Mich. judge: Courts can't set jail medication policy

The ruling allows the jail's medical contractor to continue altering inmate prescriptions as it deems fit

By Mardi Link
The Record-Eagle
TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — A judge denied a defendant's emergency petition, and for the second time in a week said the court cannot compel medical staff at Grand Traverse County's jail to distribute specific prescribed medications to people incarcerated there.

"I don't believe that I have any jurisdiction over the jail and its policies regarding medication," 86th District Court Judge Robert Cooney said Tuesday, during a bond hearing for Cyrus Patson, accused of domestic violence, cutting a tether and fleeing and eluding police.

"For one, I am not a doctor," Cooney added. "I am not a healthcare provider in any way and that service has been turned over to Wellpath by the sheriff, for better or worse."

Wellpath, a Nashville-based corporation and the nation's largest provider of inmate healthcare, contracts with the county to provide jail health services.

Sheriff Tom Bensley said he listened to the remote hearing and characterized the jail's relationship with Wellpath as "definitely for the better."

At one time the county did hire its own registered nurses to work in the jail, Bensley said, but had a hard time keeping the positions fully staffed. When Wellpath offered to assume that responsibility and prescribe and dispense medication, it made sense, Bensley said.

"They're getting medication," Bensley said, of those lodged in the jail. "It may not be what they want but they're getting appropriate medications."

For example, instead of treating substance use disorder with suboxone, Wellpath prescribes Vivitrol, which is administered monthly rather than the daily dose required by suboxone.

Attorney Jesse Williams of Jesse L. Williams Law & Advocacy Center in Benzonia, last week filed two emergency petitions on behalf of Patson and another client, Austin Phillips, asking a judge to either release his clients or compel the jail to provide them with their medications.

Williams cited sentencing orders by Cooney and Judge Michael Stepka that both men, who waived HIPAA rights allowing their medical treatment to be discussed in open court, continue treatment for their mental health diagnoses.

Patson was sentenced July 7 to 180 days in jail held in abeyance by Judge Michael Stepka for attempted resisting and obstructing arrest and use of a controlled substance. He's lodged in the jail on bond issues and other charges, Williams said.

Phillips was sentenced July 8 to 30 days in jail by Cooney on domestic violence and attempted fleeing and eluding convictions.

Dr. Kelly Clark, a Munson physician, prescribed Suboxone and other medications to treat Patson's diagnosed substance use disorder, depression and anxiety.

A disposition order signed July 7 by Stepka states Patson would, "continue all treatment w/Dr. Clark at Munson, follow all recs incl. taking all meds."

Melpomeni G. Kavadella, a Traverse City psychiatrist, prescribed Vyvanse to treat Phillip's diagnosed attention deficit disorder.

Patson was represented Tuesday by attorney Matias Johnson; Williams drafted and filed the emergency motions and Cooney presided over Phillip's sentencing hearing July 8.

When Williams expressed concern his client would not receive the proper treatment if he were incarcerated, Cooney stated that the jail had an obligation to make sure Phillips received his prescribed medications.

"So, the idea that somehow the jail is going to deny him those medications, I — I don't think that's realistic," Cooney said, according to a transcript of the hearing.

"There is a nurse over there who makes sure that those medications get administered, and if I have any concerns about whether the defendant is receiving proper medications, I'll get involved myself and we'll have the jail captain subpoenaed to Court here to explain what's going on."

On July 14, it was Wellpath supervisor Elaine Kaiser who offered an explanation. Once someone was lodged in the jail, their medical needs were assessed by Wellpath staff, which prescribed and dispensed medications that might differ from what someone was taking prior to being incarcerated.

Under questioning by Williams, Kaiser said there was no prescribed medication that Wellpath would refuse to administer and that medical needs of incarcerated patients were addressed individually. Later, however, she said stimulants, benzenoids and suboxone — used to treat depression, anxiety and opioid use disorder — were "not provided in the jail."

Vyvanse is one of those medications, Kaiser said, as is suboxone.

Bensley compared a change in medication policy between a Wellpath provider and private practice provider to a person receiving different care in an emergency room than they would from their family doctor.

Motion hearings seeking to reduce bond or release someone early from detention were more defense strategy than medical emergency, Bensley said.

Grand Traverse County's Chief Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Kyle Attwood argued against the motion, stating he didn't think Patson was capable of following community corrections protocols.

"I think the best place for him right now is where he's at," Attwood said. "He needs to get a hold of the issues that keep bringing him back before the court."

Williams characterized such an attitude as, "toxic and unproductive."

"Is their solution to just let him rot away in jail until they have to release him?" Williams stated. "He's still not getting adequate medical treatment and it's time to put the old way of thinking aside and start listening to the science."

"The only reason he has pending charges is because he ran because he knew if he went to jail he wouldn't get his medications," Williams said, of Patson. "There has to be some accountability here."

Williams said these may be violations of the Americans with Disability Act and suggested he may pursue future litigation in state court.

Cooney has yet to rule on the emergency motion filed in the Phillips case. On July 14 he said he first wanted to review notes from Wellpath's jail medical staff.
(c)2021 The Record-Eagle (Traverse City, Mich.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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