Mich. sheriff: Jail health services a 'nightmare'

The county jail has been under pressure from the public for many years to provide better mental health services for inmates


By Patti Brandt Burgess
The Record-Eagle

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — The Grand Traverse County Commission could approve a new company Monday to deliver medical and mental health care services in the jail.

The company, Advanced Correctional Healthcare, turned in a bid of $1.223 million for services starting Jan. 1 through the end of 2023.

The current jail provider, County Health Support Services, turned in a bid for $2.231 million — much higher than the jail's healthcare services budget of $1.326 million.

Their bid also lacked detail and was unprofessional, with several formatting and grammatical errors, according to a letter from Capt. Chris Barsheff, jail administrator, to the county board. The letter was included in the packet for the commissioners' special meeting at 8 a.m., Monday, Nov. 14.

The county meeting was moved up to Monday from its usual Wednesday slot because of deer hunting rifle season, which opens Nov. 15.

CHSS took over from former provider Wellpath in February, but never hired people to deliver mental health services that were part of the contract and had budget overruns of up to $400,000, which the county has declined to pay.

Along with these financial and staffing shortages at the jail, the death of an inmate on Wednesday is being investigated as a possible suicide.

Sheriff Tom Bensley said it is too soon to comment on whether mental health services the jail had contracted for with CHSS which were not provided could have prevented Smith's death.

Some services had improved on the medical side of the operation, Bensley said.

"Honestly, on the managerial side of that, it was a nightmare," he added. "It's been a pretty turbulent 10 months."

ACH and CHSS are the two companies that met bid requirements. Two others, TrueCare24 based in Tampa, Fla., and Diamond Pharmacy Services of Pennsylvania, were not considered as they did not attend a mandatory pre-bid meeting.

The board could still consider those companies, but a committee made up of a jail and county administrator, a community member with a mental health background and a nurse from the GTC Health Department recommended ACH.

ACH, based in Tennessee, delivers adult and juvenile jail health services in 19 states and 38 Michigan counties. They have been in business for 20 years, compared to CHSS, which formed in fall of 2021 specifically to provide services to Grand Traverse County.

When the company's references were contacted, mixed reviews were received, according to the Barsheff letter. Some shared concerns about inadequate staffing by ACH and ineffective management, the letter said. Some said the company fell short of meeting contractual obligations and required constant oversight.

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The proposal from ACH includes a practitioner working up to four hours per week, three full- and two part-time nurses, and a qualified mental health practitioner.

Extras that could be added later include a discharge planner and an addictions professional. Both would be in the jail for up to eight hours a week, with an added cost of $2,789 per month or $33,462 per year for each position.

Another extra would have personnel in the jail 24/7, which would bump the cost of the one-year contract up to $1.490 million.

Bensley said it would be wonderful to have healthcare workers in the jail around the clock. "We would love that," the sheriff said. "There are so many benefits for our inmates and for our staff."

But it's expensive and over budget, he noted, in addition to staffing problems that were reported by some facilities the company has contracts with.

"We have staffing issues with our current company," he said. "Everyone has staffing issues."

Bensley said, depending on how the company works out, the county could later increase the contract amount for added services.

"If we can turn that into 24 hours that would be wonderful," he said.

On Thursday, the sheriff reported that jail staff had found the body of Michael Shaun Smith at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday. The 34-year-old Traverse City man's death is being investigated by the Michigan State Police.

"We'll wait for the MSP to wrap up their investigation before we take the next step," Bensley said Friday.

The county jail has been under pressure from the public for many years to provide better mental health services for inmates. There were two suicides at the jail along with 51 attempted suicides of varying degrees of severity over a seven-year span, prior to Barsheff taking over administration of the jail.

Barsheff has said he is determined to provide better care for inmates and has put in place the Stepping Up program, which has jail staff doing mental health and substance use assessments at booking.

He has advocated for mobile services that would have a law enforcement officer and a mental health worker going to a person's home to handle mental health crises that may otherwise land people in jail or the emergency room.

Barsheff also has advocated for a diversion center for adults and youth, something that is in the works in the community.

County administrators are currently working with administrators from Crawford, Leelanau, Missaukee, Roscommon and Wexford counties to rewrite an enabling agreement for the Northern Lakes Community Mental Health Authority.

Bensley said county Administrator Nate Alger is looking for the agreement to provide specifics for mental health services in the jail.

"We are hoping to get improved services when that is written," Bensley said.

Northern Lakes provides crisis services at the jail and, for two years, held a contract to provide treatment for those with mild to moderate mental disorders and substance use disorder. That contract was discontinued when it was found not enough inmates were being reached and that many waited weeks for services.

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