The Benton County Sheriff's Office will pursue a contract for medical services at the jail -- a move that could bring a greater amount of medical coverage for equal or less money.
Such a contract also would reduce the county's liability, said Sheriff Steve Keane. He presented the idea to county commissioners Tuesday.
Commissioners in a unanimous vote gave Keane's office the authority to negotiate a contract with a corrections health care company.
The contract will come back to commissioners for approval at a future meeting.
"I'm excited, just for the simple fact that we're ... taking a look at possible ways to reduce the liability when it comes to the county and provide a better service," said Commissioner Shon Small, chairman of the board of commissioners.
The county jail in Kennewick holds about 600 inmates on average a day.
"As you know, after 11 o'clock at night we don't have any medical providers in the facility," Keane said. "So officers are having to make the decision as to whether or not a person needs to receive medical care outside of the facility. We find ourselves transporting a lot of individuals to and from the hospital to be checked out just because we have to err on the side of caution."
Keane at a meeting in June brought up the need for 24-hour medical coverage and commissioners were receptive, asking that the county administrator and sheriff's office work together to identify money for additional nurse positions.
Since that meeting, the sheriff's office informally sought proposals from some health care companies to gauge whether pursing a contract was a better plan.
One of the proposals came in too high, but the Colorado-based Correctional Healthcare Companies "came back with a number that we could well support within our current budget," Sheriff's Lt. Josh Shelton told commissioners. The proposal included 24-hour medical coverage.
The county currently spends about $1.5 million annually on jail medical services, with a physician who works part-time by contract and a corps of nurses who provide care.
The nurses are county employees.
Keane told the Herald that if a contract arrangement moves forward he would hope to retain as many as want to stay on.
-- Keane told commissioners he needs to bring in additional nurses on a per diem basis immediately as a stop-gap measure because of a significant dip in nursing staff.
"We started out with 10 nurses and within a very short period of time we're down to five" due to factors such as leave and resignations, he said.
Keane is negotiating a contract, and commissioners gave Small authority to sign it on behalf of the board when it's worked out.
-- Commissioners agreed to hold a workshop to discuss South 38th Avenue.
The road today is privately maintained.
Some nearby property owners proposed improving it and some other streets in the neighborhood through a county road improvement district. The residents would have paid for the work through per-parcel assessments.
The proposal drew both support and opposition in the neighborhood; commissioners ultimately rejected it at a meeting earlier this year.
But they asked county staff to start the process of having 38th classified as a collector street, which would allow the county to seek funding to improve it. Proposed federal classification has come through and now officials must decide how to move forward.
-- Sara Schilling: 582-1529; email@example.com; Twitter: @saraTCHerald