Tonawanda News

December 6, 2012

Jail medical unit going 'private'

By Joyce M. Miles
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — LOCKPORT — The transition to private medical care for inmates of Niagara County Jail should be completed by mid-month.

Armor Correctional Health Services, a Miami-based medical services company, is set to take over the jail medical unit Dec. 16, Sheriff James Voutour said this week.

That means Dec. 15 is the last day of work for seven county-employed registered and licensed practical nurses at the jail.

Some, but not all, of those nurses will stay on as employees of ACHS. According to Voutour, the company hired three of the seven after interviews with nurses who applied. To complete its staff roster, Armor passed over some present county employees and hired from the outside.

All laid-off nurses are being offered a severance package that includes 3 1/2 months of county-paid health insurance and 100 percent buyback of unspent vacation, personal and sick days, human resources Director Peter Lopes said.

The standard severance package for laid-off county employees includes health coverage for two months after the month in which they're terminated. After consultation with Voutour and a representative of the nurses' union, CSEA, Lopes said the county agreed to offer the nurses an extra month of paid health coverage.

They hope the offer discourages nurses from quitting — and potentially leaving the jail medical unit understaffed — before Armor takes over.

"It's everybody's hope, through careful planning, that the transition will go smoothly," Lopes said.

A nurse who didn't get hired by Armor recently complained to the newspaper, charging the county's process for handing off jail medical work was not fair or transparent.

The nurse, who declined to give her name, claimed top officials at the jail did not keep the nursing staff apprised of privatization talks — they learned from the media that their jobs were being cut, she said; and also claimed officials falsely promised nurses that ACHS would hire all of them.

Voutour and CSEA unit President Tom Lafornia, denied both of those charges.

Lafornia said he and the nurses were informed months ago that the sheriff's office was pursuing privatization. CSEA did register its objections to that, he added.

Voutour acknowledged the nurses may well have learned from the media first that their jobs were definitely being cut — in mid-September a legislative committee recommended the county legislature give Voutour the authority to cut a final deal with Armor — but he said the news accounts merely confirmed what the nurses knew was likely.

"We didn't confirm (Armor contract approval) to employees until the administration committee voted, but they knew all along this is what we were working toward," Voutour said.

As for assurances the county nurses would all be retained by Armor, none were ever made, Voutour said. What was relayed to the nurses, and Voutour was quoted as saying in various publications, is that they would all be able to apply for jobs with Armor. Why half of them weren't retained, he declined to say Monday.

Per the contract signed Nov. 30, Armor will be paid $1,999,250 next year to staff and operate the jail infirmary, provide all inmates' medical, dental and mental health care and assume liability for any malpractice-type claims lodged by inmates.

While the contract price is higher than this year's $1.7 million budgeted cost of a county-run medical unit, going with Armor should help the county save money long-term, in part by getting the jail out from under a state Commission on Corrections mandate regarding medical unit staffing.

As of mid-October, the county-run unit was six RNs short of being properly staffed and the infirmary — comparable to an on-site hospital — was not operable, according to Voutour; inmates needing medical treatment were being taken to Eastern Niagara Hospital instead.

By farming out medical work, the county will shed public employee legacy costs and cut spending on inmate-patient transport and guarding, the sheriff noted. Armor can get medical supplies including pharmaceuticals at less cost and its assumption of liability for patient-care complaints offers the county potentially "huge" savings, he added.