Medical services for the Washington County jail are under scrutiny by Washington County residents, commissioners and former sheriff’s office employees.
Barbara Ross, Washington County resident, said she was a medical professional who worked in the jail system for a few years and made a public comment at commissioner’s last regular meeting.
“I am concerned over what I read on KWHI, the $400,000-plus that we have spent sending inmates to the emergency room vs. having a doctor check them in the jail. I don’t know what this situation is. Obviously, nobody wants to talk about it. As taxpayers — which that is our money — we need an explanation.”
Washington County Sheriff Otto Hanak refuted the $400,000 figure but was not able to give The Banner-Press an accurate figure by press time Saturday.
Currently the jail operates with a medical director who comes to the jail to treat inmates, along with a staff of medical aids and nurses who act under the medical director.
Hanak banned Dr. Robert Stark, medical director, from the jail in January. Now, inmates are being sent to the emergency room for any medical needs.
Hanak said the jail is often instructed to take inmates to the ER when there is a medical issue.
“When EMS makes a phone call to Dr. Stark and requests permission to transport or not, about 99% of the time we are instructed to transport,” he said.
County Commissioner Precinct 4 Joy Fuchs also refuted the claim that inmates had racked up a $400,000 Tuesday, saying the county pays Medicaid rates.
According to Fuchs, if a typical ER visit costs $4,000 the county pays rates around $800-$900.
Commissioners met to set parameters and make a short-term plan to keep inmates from utilizing the emergency room so often.
Commissioners Fuchs and Kirk Hanath said they had no had issues with the current system until the last two months.
“If these inmates were ill and you can prove that there was a diagnosis that they were treated, that’s one thing. But since we don’t know what’s going on, you have to assume that what’s going on is ridiculous,” Ross said during public comments to the commissioners. “The jail doesn’t belong to the sheriff; it belongs to the county and it belongs to the taxpayers. Unless there is severe malpractice going on, I don’t understand the situation at all. I don’t think we’re getting that transparency.”
Commissioners declined to comment on any personnel matters during the workshop session.
Commissioners Don Koester and Candice Bullock both expressed their frustrations with not being allowed to discuss the underlying issue of the jail medical problem.
“The workshop agenda item is a little vague,” Bullock said. “I feel like the workshop is premature because there are internal issues that are not resolved.”
Koester said the medical director should be allowed to work at the jail.
“We need to find out what the root cause of this problem is,” he said. “We shouldn’t be taking prisoners (to the ER) unless it’s a life or death situation. We should let the medical director do his job.”
Two members of the sheriff’s office were in attendance at the meeting as well as Dr. Stark. Hanak was not in attendance due to being out of town on Spring Break.
For Hanak, it all boils down to one thing: Unresolved human resources complaints in his department.
“We have done everything in our power over the last seven years to save every tax dollar that we could save,” Hanak told The Banner-Press Friday. “We have not had any conflicts until recently. When our staff members file complaints, the person in charge has to respond some way. This has been going on for four months with no resolution in sight.
“I have provided the county 23 years with law enforcement service and now I appear to be the bad guy when I have done nothing wrong except protect the people that work for me to the best of my ability.”
The Banner-Press made contact with two former sheriff’s office employees Friday and granted them anonymity due to their fears of retribution from the sheriff’s office. The Banner-Press will refer to these sources as M. Smith and J. Jones in this report and will take out their gender pronouns.
Smith worked under Dr. Stark for several months and felt forced to resign by Hanak. On the day they resigned, Smith said Hanak questioned them about stealing government documents — medical release papers — which they said they did not do.
“The sheriff questioned me about stealing government documents and I’m worried about how far the sheriff is going to take all of this,” Smith said. “I’m scared. He kept questioning me about talking to Dr. Stark and about the documents.”
Smith believes an employee under the pseudonym Williams, was trying to undermine Dr. Stark by writing false human resources complaints.
“All these claims from Williams are false,” Smith said. “They even tried to make me write a statement (against Dr. Stark). Williams kept writing statements to HR over stupid crap and (Dr. Stark) got tired of it and responded by saying they could not work under his license. We (former employees) felt like they (the sheriff’s office) were after Dr. Stark and they started coming after us if we didn’t play along in their game.”
Smith called Hanak a “bully,” but Smith isn’t the only one who feels that way.
Jones worked with Dr. Stark for more than a year and resigned in September after Hanak tried to write them up for insubordination.
Jones said Hanak requested to meet with them, but when Jones walked into his office, they were met with an HR representative and resignation papers, which they signed.
“He bullies people and he intimidates them, and he scares them,” Jones said.
Jones said they began having problems when the Sheriff’s Department tried to get them to write a statement against Dr. Stark.
“That’s when all the bad blood started; When I didn’t write my statement the way they wanted me to write it,” Jones said. “All of a sudden, it just started changing.”
Jones began receiving write ups for small things, which had never happened to them before. Jones believed they were following the protocol and chain of command set by the sheriff.
“When it comes to the sheriff, its all been a huff,” Jones said. “He wanted me to follow his bandwagon because he specifically told me ‘I don’t like Stark and I am trying to build a case against him.’”
Jones and Smith both believe the allegations which caused Stark to be banned from the jail are false.
Smith gave many instances of inmates being denied care while they worked there, such as not giving insulin to a diabetic inmate when they needed it, not giving correct medicine to an inmate with high blood pressure, causing them debilitating headaches, and a stage 4 lung cancer patient not receiving proper care because the doctor was not present.
“(The Sheriff’s Department) needs to be punished. They need to let the people know what they have in office and what is going on,” Jones said. “I’m afraid that…someone is going to get sick or die. I blame the sheriff because he is being petty, and he is being a bully and he is trying to throw his authority around.”
When asked if Hanak was using bullying or intimidation tactics in the department, he said “that would be the farthest thing from the truth.”
“I can tell you that there is no truth to that at all,” Hanak said. “We take care of business. We make sure everyone that works for us is held accountable. We expect our employees to be accountable because quite honestly, the Washington County Sheriff’s Department is the largest liability in this county. And, by the way, the largest employer. And when we have chaos in our jail facility — which we currently have — we are doing everything in our power to fix that.
“And I can’t do it by myself. I need the commissioners court and the county judge to assist in that.”
Hanak released a statement Tuesday sharing his side of the story.
“In September 2019, I requested, through the office of the county judge and commissioner’s court, that the medical director provide his own written alcohol-drug detoxification protocol for the jail, yet we remain without one specific to him as the medical director,” Hanak said in the release. “In November 2019, a medical staff member of the Washington County Jail submitted a complaint regarding the medical director to the county’s human resources department (HR) and to the county judge. In December 2019, a corrections officer submitted a (different and unrelated) complaint pertaining to the medical director to myself. This complaint was immediately forwarded to the HR department, the county judge, the county attorney and the commissioner’s court for review.”
But nothing came of the complaints, according to Hanak, who said he suspended Stark while his employees waited for their complaints to be resolved.
“It has also been made known to me that the lack of attention to one of those complaints has resulted in an EEOC complaint being filed,” Hanak said of a complaint filed with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Some two hours before Hanak’s release was received Tuesday, The Banner-Press sent several freedom of information requests to officials in Washington County, including Hanak, seeking the EEOC complaint.
The Banner-Press received an email Thursday from Kacie Murphy, assistant county attorney, saying the attorney’s office had not received any EEOC complaints in the last six months.
“As the person responsible for the operations of my office that includes the jail, I cannot understand why the county officials that have hired the medical director (without my input) are not interested in providing immediate and due diligence with respect to two county employees that have filed complaints,” Hanak said in his release. “It makes no sense that they have allowed this set of circumstances and their lack of attention to these matters to have such a negative impact on the running of my office, the jail and the work environment.”
Dr. Stark said he was following the advice of the Washington County attorney and declined to comment for this report.