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St. Luke's recommended to provide health care at Duluth jail

Under a $1.7 million proposal, the Duluth hospital would take over at the St. Louis County Jail in November, ending an arrangement with the controversial MEnD Correctional Care.

Windows from a secured area look over one of the common areas for women at the St. Louis County Jail
Windows from a secured area look over one of the common areas for women at the St. Louis County Jail on Feb. 18 in Duluth.
Jed Carlson / 2022 file / Superior Telegram
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DULUTH — St. Luke’s hospital is poised to take over health care at the local jail this fall, provided its proposal is met with county board approval beginning at its meeting Tuesday in Rice Lake.

The St. Louis County Board will consider a proposal to use St. Luke’s to provide expanded regular care and routine mental health services for county inmates beginning in November and lasting through 2028.

The $1.7 million proposal roughly doubles the current $800,000 paid to an outside provider, and graduates to roughly $2 million once the hospital begins to provide daily 24-hour care in 2024.

The NAACP of Duluth hailed the move as "an enormous step" in holding the jail's current provider accountable, while Sheriff Ross Litman said it was less about political pressure and more about inmates’ needs.

“We’re expanding the level of medical care of inmates in our custody in two different areas,” Litman said. “One is nursing service and the hours provided per week, as well as a dramatic expansion of mental health services because of the nature of an increasing demand for it.”

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A corrections officer sits at his desk at the intake area
A corrections officer sits at his desk at the intake area in full personal protective equipment at the St. Louis County Jail on Feb. 18 in Duluth.
Jed Carlson / 2022 file / Superior Telegram

If approved, St. Luke’s would be the first local provider at the jail since Essentia Health declined to renew its contract in 2012.

"We are excited about the opportunity to work with St. Louis County and are confident that we will be able to provide the high-quality care that St. Luke’s is known for," Melissa Burlaga, media marketing specialist for St. Luke's, told the News Tribune on Monday afternoon. "The final details of an agreement are still being determined and therefore we are unable to comment on the specifics of the coverage model. Still, we believe that we will be able to leverage the depth and breadth of expertise that already exists at St. Luke’s to better meet the complex needs of the patients held in the jail."

The jail’s current provider, MEnD Correctional Care, of Sartell, Minnesota, was one of four providers to respond to a request for proposal, including outfits from Tennessee and California.

But MEnD has been under fire for neglect and treatment of people at facilities it serves, most notably the 2018 death of 27-year-old Hardel Sherrell, who died in the Beltrami County Jail in Bemidji. That jail and MEnD staff were found to have ignored Sherrell’s pleas for help in the days preceding his death. Beltrami County ended its relationship with MEnD.

Litman said in February that he was revisiting the jail’s provider contract. That same month, the NAACP of Duluth rallied in protest of MEnD outside of a St. Louis County Board meeting. The Minnesota Nurses Association also called on the county to move on from MEnD.

"This is an enormous step towards equity in the intersection between our health and criminal justice systems," the NAACP of Duluth said in a statement. "We have held MEnD accountable for the lives that have been lost and damaged throughout its regime and applaud St. Luke's for stepping up and providing a community service that other local healthcare organizations shied away from."

Litman expressed gratitude for MEnD, while also saying it St. Luke’s was more prepared to provide expanded services.

“MEnD has done a good job providing services for us in these last 10-plus years,” Litman said. "(But) we are greatly expanding the level of service — that was the primary reason jail administration and I decided to open up under the RFP process."

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St. Luke’s proposal runs through December 2028, beginning with 16-hour daily nursing service and 40 hours of new mental health services weekly. Service would expand in 2024 to include 24-hour nursing service daily. Initial costs for 2023 will be $1.72 million, rising to slightly more than $2 million in 2024 with 3% increases per year thereafter.

“What impressed me was St. Luke’s interest in providing the service for us,” Litman said. “I had concerns we might not get anybody showing any interest.”

A local provider will allow for better continuity of care for local residents leaving the jail, Litman said.

An evaluation team tasked with reviewing proposals interviewed its top three respondents June 3.

In January, the St. Louis County Jail experienced its first outbreak of COVID-19, affecting one-third of both staff and inmates. When the News Tribune visited the jail in February, there were 188 people in the jail.

The jail has also increased its medication-assisted treatment program for people addicted to opioids. It’s a time-intensive process reaching more than 30 inmates at a time. St. Luke’s will continue providing the service, Litman said.

“It was important to me and jail administration that we not take a step back, that we provide as good — if not better — care for inmates in our custody, including medication assisted treatment,” Litman said.

The board will hear the proposal for the first time Tuesday in Rice Lake, and, if approved, would consider final approval at its meeting Aug. 2 in Duluth. The Sherrell family is anticipated to be present at the board's meeting Tuesday.

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This story was updated at 4 p.m. July 25 with comments from St. Luke's. It was originally posted at 11:59 a.m. July 25.

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