St. Louis County Jail's medical care comes under scrutiny
NAACP will rally Tuesday in favor of an alternative to the jail's current health care provider, whose medical director was suspended indefinitely following a 2018 death in the Beltrami County Jail.
DULUTH — The local branch of the NAACP will rally outside the St. Louis County Board meeting Tuesday, challenging the health care being provided at the county jail.
In January, the state medical board suspended indefinitely the license of Dr. Todd Leonard, of Sartell, Minnesota, whose MEnD Correctional Care provides health care for dozens of jails and hundreds of inmates throughout the Midwest, including the St. Louis County Jail.
“This entity has a bad track record and has proven it can’t provide quality care,” said Jamey Sharp, co-chair of the Duluth NAACP’s criminal justice committee.
Scrutiny of MEnD includes the 2018 death of 27-year-old Hardel Sherrell, who died in the Beltrami County Jail in Bemidji. That jail and its MEnD-affiliated medical staff were found to have ignored Sherrell's pleas for help in the days preceding his death.
In ruling to suspend Leonard on Jan. 21, the Minnesota Board of Medical Practice cited Administrative Law Judge Ann O’Reilly, who said Sherrell’s death "should never have occurred," and also recommended the state investigate other MEnD contracts.
St. Louis County Sheriff Ross Litman told the News Tribune on Monday he and jail administration are investigating alternatives.
“I feel like I’m obligated and it’s in the county’s best interest at this point to see what other options are available,” Litman said. “But options are also very limited.”
St. Louis County began contracting with MEnD in 2012, Litman said, after Essentia Health declined to renew its contract to provide health care at the jail.
In addition to the NAACP, the Minnesota Nurses Association is expected to be demonstrating outside the Government Services Center, 320 W. Second St., Duluth, prior to the County Board meeting.
Commissioner Ashley Grimm, representing western Duluth, said she will propose changing the contract from automatic renewal every year to one that comes before the board for annual approval.
“To the larger issue, I’m pulling together a working group that includes community groups to find alternative providers,” she added in an email.
In a letter to commissioners last month, Litman cautioned that immediate termination of the contract with MEnD was not practical and risked being irresponsible. Litman said he has full confidence in Dr. Roger Boettcher, the MEnD medical director in lieu of Leonard, whose suspension begins March 1.
“We have got to be sure we don’t take a step backward and provide less of a quality of care,” Litman said, estimating it will take a few months to investigate alternatives to MEnD.
The NAACP’s Sharp currently works in health care, and disclosed that he spent time working for MEnD as a medical technician. He and the NAACP are concerned that inadequate care will impact minorities more than most.
"What are they doing to protect an already disparately affected group of people from this company that has clearly shown they can’t care for them?" Sharp said, estimating that 40% of the jail's inmates are minorities. "While they’re looking for a new provider, this company is still providing health care in the jail.”
Litman all but ensured inmates' safety.
"I can tell you with great certainty I don't believe something like that would happen at our facility because of our level of communication," Litman said of Sherrell's 2018 death. "We haven't had any experience like that since Dr. Leonard took over in 2012."
On its website, MEnD bills itself as capable of improving inmate health outcomes, as well as being a lower-cost alternative, earning “millions of dollars in cost savings for our clients.”
Litman said he’ll be attuned to the community rally, but that ultimately he’ll be the one making the call.
“I’ll be listening,” Litman said. “I’m open to hear what they have to say, but I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to make decisions based solely on public input. It’s a part of it. But after we do our due diligence … I’ll try to make a decision that’s best for St. Louis County and the jail division."