WTOC Investigates: Chatham Co. officials, sheriff battle over inmate health care

Chatham County Sheriff John Wilcher (Source: WTOC/file)
Chatham County Sheriff John Wilcher (Source: WTOC/file)
AL Scott (Source: Twitter)
AL Scott (Source: Twitter)
Chatham County Manager Lee Smith (Source: chathamcounty.org)
Chatham County Manager Lee Smith (Source: chathamcounty.org)

CHATHAM CO., GA (WTOC) - As we have been reporting exclusively all week long, the Chatham County Commission Chairman, County Manager and County Attorney have been busy switching health care contracts at the jail; all of this without any consultation with the man who actually runs the jail, Chatham County Sheriff John Wilcher.

Tuesday, that hostility over health care reached critical mass with the sheriff firing off a pair of letters to the county manager filled with accusations of disrespect, incompetence, and the wasting of your tax dollars.

This has always been a sheriff who lays it all out there when it comes to a County Commission Chairman who rarely shows his cards. This time, it's Chairman Al Scott's decision to terminate the one-year-old contract with CorrectHealth - the health care provider for 1,850 inmates at the Chatham County Detention Center - despite Wilcher's insistence the contractor has done a great job with his staff and prisoners.

The short notice just given to CorrectHealth - about two weeks - and the so-called "emergency contract" about to be signed with a new provider, Centurion Health, has clearly pushed all the wrong buttons.

In the letter sent to the county manager, chairman and attorneys, Wilcher said, "I am greatly troubled by the way the county staff has gone about trying to ...Micromanage a critical function of my jail operation. It is clear that you are ...trying to run the County Taxpayer's Detention Center from Bull Street. And doing so ...without the first bit of medical and/or law enforcement experience."

The sheriff then lambastes the county for the disrespect it has shown the sheriff's staff adding, "This cavalier attitude is dangerous and puts into harm's way both my officers and the inmates entrusted to my care. And it must stop."

As has been the case every time I have asked for a response from the county on this issue, there isn't one.

Even when it comes to the county's claim that the Centurion "emergency contract will, "...save the county $2 million a year if negotiations fell through with CorrectHealth."

Last night, we showed why that claim might not pan out for county taxpayers. CorrectHealth had spent upwards of $2.5 million in the last year on hospitalization costs according to Wilcher.

Those costs would be charged to the county under the Centurion contract. Centurion is also charging an extra $3.74 a day for every inmate over 1,800 at the jail. The detention center averages 1,850. Another $70,000 a year tacked on to county costs.

I asked the sheriff why, if the law allows him to take the healthcare contract on himself, he doesn't just do it. He told me the county wants that control and liability and they can have it as long as the mental and physical needs of his inmates are met.

Wednesday, the county manager sent representatives of Centurion over to the jail to meet Wilcher's staff. Because the county hasn't even let the sheriff see the contract, Wilcher refused to let them in.

The health care contract is on the Friday morning Commission agenda. And we'll be there, too.

You can read the full letter Sheriff Wilcher sent to County Chairman Al Scott below:
You can read the full letter Sheriff Wilcher sent to County Manager Lee Smith below:

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