Allegheny County to solicit bids on providing health care at jail

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Allegheny County is preparing to invite companies to bid on the $11 million-a-year job of providing health care at its jail.

Since 2000, that job has been done by Allegheny Correctional Health Services, a nonprofit agency created by the county Health Department.

"Since the contract with ACHS is up on Dec. 31, this provides the opportunity to make a change if there is a better option," said Amie Downs, spokeswoman for county Executive Rich Fitzgerald. Mr. Fitzgerald "believes that there are more savings that can be realized, and that there may be additional efficiencies that can be realized through the use of technology."

ACHS was created in 2000 in an effort to cut costs and improve care by replacing a for-profit health care provider with a nonprofit. Costs in 2000 were $4.6 million a year, and reached $11.6 million in 2011. The 2013 budget calls for a $10.9 million allocation.

ACHS can bid on the work, Ms. Downs wrote, but would be phased out if it didn't prevail. ACHS's 100-plus employees "would no longer work at the jail if ACHS is not the selected vendor," Ms. Downs wrote.

"They do as well as anybody could with the funds that they have," said Marion Damick, the Pittsburgh representative of the Pennsylvania Prison Society. Where there have been problems -- like the recent departures of two of three jail psychiatrists -- they have been the result of budgetary pressures, she said.

ACHS has been targeted by lawsuits from former inmates who have claimed that inadequate care amounts to cruel and unusual punishment, and from the families of inmates who died in jail. In September, a nurse sued in U.S. District Court saying that ACHS fired her after she threatened to report to the Health Department on treatment that she believed contributed to an inmate's death.

Ms. Downs said the administration wants to address both cost and quality of care and has hired consultant Catherine C. McVey, a former deputy secretary for administration with the state Department of Corrections, to oversee the bid process. In December, the county will invite firms to submit proposals.

The jail has an average daily population of around 2,500.

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