Updated: 4:15 p.m.
St. Louis County commissioners took the first step on Tuesday to choose a new health care provider for people incarcerated in the county jail.
The county board is expected to give final approval next week to a contract with St. Luke’s Hospital in Duluth that will provide expanded medical and mental health services. Tuesday’s preliminary vote was 5-0, with two commissioners absent.
The move will end the county’s decade-long relationship with MEnD Correctional Care, a private medical contractor based in Sartell. St. Louis is one of a number of Minnesota counties that recently have voted to switch from MEnD to another provider.
That's partly due to the state medical board recently suspending the medical license of MEnD's founder, Dr. Todd Leonard, over his role in the death of 27-year-old Hardel Sherrell. Sherrell died in 2018 after falling ill while in the Beltrami County jail, and his pleas for help were ignored by jail and medical staff.
St. Louis County Commissioner Ashley Grimm has been urging a change in providers due to concerns about MEnD's performance. She said people in jails often have serious conditions, but no opportunity to choose their own medical care.
“Having a hospital that also provides local care and has this expertise and can give a continuum of care really will save lives,” Grimm said.
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St. Luke’s was one of four providers who submitted proposals in response to St. Louis County’s request, along with MEnD, Tennessee-based Advanced Correctional Healthcare, and California-based Clipboard Health.
The Duluth branch of the NAACP called the change in providers “an enormous step towards equity in the intersection between our health and criminal justice systems.”
Jamey Sharp, co-chair of the Duluth NAACP's criminal justice committee, said switching from a for-profit company to a non-profit health provider in the jail is a positive step.
“And also, St. Luke's being local will be able to help just more with continuity for patients when they're in and out of jail, and just making sure that there's better health care all around,” Sharp said. “You'll have providers that know them in and out of the jail, and their medications will be able to get started sooner and all that.”
Under the proposal, St. Luke's will transition to providing nursing services 24 hours a day, seven days a week by January 2024. Currently, MEnD provides services 15 hours a day five days a week, and four hours on weekends and holidays.
The six-year contract with St Luke’s will cost the county about $1.7 million the first year, nearly double what it currently pays MEnD. The cost will rise to about $2 million in 2024.
In a statement, St. Luke’s said the final details of an agreement are still being worked out, so it’s unable to comment on specifics.
“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 statement read.