Company’s bankruptcy leaves Minn. counties searching for jail medical care

A woman raises her fist in the air
Del Shea Perry raises her fist and holds back tears after speaking about her son Hardel Sherrell, who died in custody at the Beltrami County Jail in 2018, during a demonstration outside of the Governor’s Mansion May 25, in St. Paul
Nicole Neri for MPR News | 2022

A controversial jail doctor’s company filed for bankruptcy last month, leaving more than a dozen Minnesota counties scrambling to find a different health provider for people in their jails.

Last month, MEnD Correctional Care informed counties by letter that it is terminating correctional health care services within 90 days.

“MEnD will use all reasonable means to ensure that appropriate medical services coverage (is) in place during this period of time,” wrote Todd Leonard, MEnD’s founder. 

However, he urged them to “work expeditiously” to find a new provider, noting that “labor market changes” could affect MEnD’s ability to retain staff.

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The Sartell, Minn.-based company has faced allegations of failing to provide adequate care to inmates, including 27-year-old Hardel Sherrell, who died in 2018 of medical complications after his pleas for help were ignored by Beltrami County jail and medical staff.

Last January, a state board suspended Leonard’s medical license indefinitely, finding that he demonstrated a willful or careless disregard for a patient’s health, welfare or safety in Sherrell’s case.

A video screenshot of a man in an orange jumpsuit and an officer.
Video shows Hardel Sherrell could walk when he originally arrived at the jail.
Belatrami County Jail courtesy of KARE 11

The FBI and a grand jury are investigating the circumstances of Sherrell’s death. The Beltrami County attorney has turned over an investigation to a private law firm to recommend whether anyone should face criminal charges.

New provider needed

In the past year, several Minnesota counties have switched from MEnD to different medical providers for their jail populations, including Anoka, Clearwater, Sherburne, Morrison, Olmsted, St. Louis and Wright.

Despite MEnD’s legal troubles, several counties contacted by MPR News last year said they were satisfied with MEnD’s services and had no plans to look for a different provider. However, those counties now must find a new provider by March 1, MEnD’s last day of service — or possibly sooner.

Counties are required by law to provide medical care for those incarcerated in jail. But they are free to choose the method of providing that care, and MEnD frequently offered counties a less costly option than hiring their own staff or contracting with a local health care system. 

The Minnesota Department of Corrections has reached out to counties that contract with MEnD and offered assistance, encouraged contingency plans and provided examples of what other counties have done, said department spokesperson Nick Kimball. 

‘Breach of contract’

Crow Wing County, in north-central Minnesota, contracted with MEnD for 11 years. County officials were exploring other alternatives when they were notified of MEnD’s bankruptcy, said Tim Houle, county administrator.

Now, the county is under pressure to find a temporary solution for medical care for its jail population, while also looking for a long-term option.

“This isn't a question of if we can have a jail health program,” House said. “You cannot incarcerate people and deny them health care.”

The county decided to end its relationship with MEnD early — on Dec. 31 — when it learned that the company hasn’t been keeping up on paying its employees who work in the jail, Houle said.

“We are under contract with MEnD to provide jail health, and part of that is that they need to pay their staff on time, regularly,” he said. “If they don't, we consider them to be in breach of contract.”

The county is working to hire MEnD’s staff — including four nurses, three medical technicians and an office supervisor — as county employees, Houle said. 

In the long term, county officials are considering either contracting with Advanced Correctional Healthcare, a Tennessee-based private company, or Essentia Health, the Duluth-based health care system that operates a hospital and clinics in Brainerd.

Finding a replacement

Carver County also quickly moved to hire two jail nurses after hearing that MEnD’s cash-flow problems meant their employees might not be paid on time.

“We knew that our contract with MEnD was expiring, so these are things that we were going to be looking at anyway,” said Sheriff Jason Kamerud. “Of course, we were hoping to not have it be quite so hurried.”

Kamerud said it will take longer for the county to issue a request for proposals to companies that provide correctional health care.

“There’s not a lot of businesses that do that,” he said. “So that’s yet another challenge.”

Renville County already was looking around for other providers because of the media coverage of MEnD’s problems, Sheriff Scott Hable said. 

“This wasn't a huge surprise that MEnD was unable to continue service,” Hable said. “The writing was kind of on the wall.”

When notified of MEnD’s bankruptcy, Renville County put out a request for proposals. Hable hopes to have a new provider hired by Feb. 1. 

“Our priority is to make sure our inmates are well taken care of, so we obviously don't want any gap in in their care,” Hable said.

The leading candidate right now is Advanced Correctional Healthcare, but it will come with a cost — almost double what the county was paying MEnD, Hable said.

Jessica Young, president and CEO of Advanced Correctional Healthcare, stated in an email that her company is currently negotiating contracts with jails in Minnesota, Illinois, Iowa and South Dakota as a result of MEnD’s bankruptcy filing and inability to make payroll. 

ACH staff “have worked diligently throughout this holiday season in order to bridge potential gaps in patient care,” Young stated.

“It would be an understatement to suggest this has been an all-hands-on-deck approach,” she stated. Young said ACH is working to “onboard these new clients to the best of our ability.”

MEnD also has been hit with several civil lawsuits related to patient care. 

In 2021, Sherburne County and MEnD agreed to pay $2.3 million to the family of James Lynas, who died by suicide in 2017 after spending nine days in the Sherburne County Jail.

An attorney with the law firm that represented the Lynas family and other plaintiffs in lawsuits against MEnD said she’s not surprised by the news of the company’s bankruptcy.

Katie Bennett, with the firm Robins Kaplan, said to her knowledge, all of her clients who settled with MEnD have been paid. But she said the cases were about more than money.

“Usually it was in such a horrible situation, where they're dealing with the loss of a loved one,” she said. “And I think that kind of across the board, they wanted to see that not happen again.”

Bennett said counties that contracted with MEnD should have been paying attention to the company’s serious problems.

“It's hard for me to feel too sorry for the counties,” she said. “They know they have inmates who have a constitutional right to medical care, and they have that obligation to provide it. So the writing was sort of on the wall.”