JONESBOROUGH, Tenn. (WJHL) — The Washington County Tennessee Sheriff’s Office (WCSO) held a press conference Tuesday afternoon to address a claim of outstanding inmate medical bills that originally totaled $2 million.
Ballad Health, the medical provider of these services, sent a letter demanding payment to the Washington County Sheriff’s Office and Washington Detention Center following “a multitude of unsuccessful calls, letters and meetings to resolve this matter,” according to the document.
The five-page letter sent by Ballad Health is dated Nov. 22, 2021. According to Sheriff Keith Sexton, this letter is one of the many items he inherited from the prior administration. While the letter is addressed to the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, it’s directed to former Deputy Sheriff Leighta Laitinen since Sexton was not officially sworn into the sheriff role until the 22nd, and she held the position at the time the letter was sent via certified mail.
However, the issues posed in the document pre-date both Washington County sheriff candidates and references that these unpaid bills go back to 2018, which is when Sheriff Ed Graybeal was in charge.
“These bills date back as late as 2018,” Sexton said. “In the interest of being transparent about it, I wanted to make it understood that we are looking at these bills. It’s been a long process that we’ve been working on since I first came in office.
“We have partnered with our community health partner, Ballad, and our medical company, Southern Health Partners, to basically dissect these bills and get down to the true total that we owe.”
Sexton revealed that Ballad slashed the original $2 million bill in half, and the WCSO worked to bring the amount owed down to a little over $300,000 by investigating their state and federal inmates. This only led to more questions when the WCSO discovered an inmate housing contract hadn’t been updated since its expiration in 2008.
However, former Interim Sheriff, Leighta Laitinen said she and her team had actually done the legwork on investigating these claims while she was in office, also arriving at a near $350,000 cost. She told News Channel 11 that she had told Sexton about the medical bills the night he was appointed sheriff.
“I showed him the medical bills and extradition and I said here are the medical bills I’d be happy to go through these and explain. He said I’ll figure them out myself and showed me the door. We had to sit down for weeks and go through medical bills, see who was sent to the OR, we don’t owe a medical bill just because they go to the hospital. That 2 million was every person who had ever been to the hospital,” she said.
Laitinen also went on to say that the billing was not a failure of the former administration, but rather a miscommunication.
“We were not getting the bills, they were going directly to the contract medical company, they were not sending them to us. When we found that out, that’s when Ballad Health called us and said you all owe us $2 million,” she said.
Laitinen told News Channel 11 that she had a plan in place to use funds at the end of the budget year which normally hits around April and even paid over $50,000 from special funds to lower the final cost of the bill. However, she said since she was not appointed sheriff, she could not follow through on final funding plans.
Laitinen clarified that she did communicate with Ballad following their initial demand for the $2 million but that they had wanted the money on a sped-up timeline, one she could not accommodate considering finances at the time.
The original $2 million is a lot of money; however, it’s a bill the department could have easily paid had their inmate housing contract been negotiated with the federal government. During this process, Sexton and his team at the sheriff’s office say they found that since the contract was never renegotiated, the office missed out on more tax dollars per inmate that could have not only paid this bill but helped the department in other funding matters, such as upping the rate of pay of current staff.
County officials told News Channel 11 they’re receiving $7 less a day than neighboring Carter County for federal inmates, which averages fewer inmates than Washington County. On average, the Washington County jail houses 80 inmates. So at $7 a day per those 80 inmates, that totals $560 a day. $560 a day for an entire year amounts to $204,400 that the county is not receiving in tax dollars. When you take into account that annual amount in regard to the 14 years the contract has sat in its current, non-negotiated state, that totals $2,861,600.
Despite this hiccup in the paperwork that was caused by past administrations, the bill at hand needs to be paid. The sheriff’s office is working through copies of past invoices to verify the cost of the final bill but Ballad is adamant about receiving the proper compensation.
“We appreciate the speed and responsiveness that Sheriff Sexton has shown on this issue,” a Ballad spokesperson said in a statement. “Since his arrival, we feel we now have a path to successfully resolve these unpaid medical expenses for care delivered to prisoners by Ballad Health’s doctors and nurses.”
There is a difference in the cost of care between federal and state inmates. The care of federal inmates is fully covered whereas only up to $1,000 in care is covered for state inmates. According to county officials, the prior administration had not been clearly differentiating between state and federal inmates so that bill could result in a lower cost.
According to the letter, Ballad states its staff treated individuals in custody at no cost to the patient or inmate. The variety of medical care ranges from emergency to non-emergency. The document also specifies the circumstances surrounding the need for care.
The Ballad letter, sent by Senior Vice President of the Revenue Cycle Shana Tate, concludes stating, “Since 2018, Ballad has provided medical treatment to inmates of the Washington County Detention Center, resulting in uncompensated care totaling over $2 million. Ballad demands immediate payment by WCSO/WCDC on outstanding claims in accordance with its legal obligations under state and federal law.”