For the third time in the past eight years, Oklahoma
County Sheriff John Whetsel has been sued for damages by a local hospital,
which accuses him of releasing dozens of jail prisoners to avoid having to pay
their medical bills.
Prior lawsuits involving Whetsel’s handling of
detainee medical costs have resulted in county officials paying more than $8
million in settlements. The latest action, filed on April 5, 2013 in Oklahoma
County District Court, alleges that the sheriff’s office has run up at least
$924,085 in medical bills at Oklahoma University Medical Center (OUMC) since
March 2011, excluding interest, while paying only $52,402 to the hospital.
OUMC officials contend that Sheriff Whetsel has
deliberately circumvented a state law that requires counties to pay the medical
costs of prisoners held in their custody. “The county and the sheriff have
developed a practice of … purporting to ‘release’ inmates from custody
before, and even after transporting them to the hospital, and then deny
liability for the necessary medical care by saying the inmate is no longer in
the county’s custody,” the lawsuit alleges. “This practice … is a
blatant effort by the county and the sheriff to absolve themselves of their
statutory and constitutional duty to provide medical care to inmates.”
According to the complaint filed by OUMC, the
sheriff’s office has released at least 37 prisoners on their own recognizance
in order to avoid paying their medical bills. OUMC officials argue that such
releases are an ongoing problem and in violation of the same laws that were at
issue in prior lawsuits filed against the sheriff’s office.
“While the petition raises a unique and somewhat
confusing theory of liability which OUMC wishes to place upon the county, the
petition does not include particulars of their specific claims which would
allow our financial division to ascertain whether the claims were legitimate
charges against the county,” the sheriff’s office said in a prepared
statement. See: HCA Health Services of Oklahoma, Inc. v. Whetsel, Oklahoma
County District Court (OK), Case No. CJ-2013-2068.
In 2007, the Oklahoma Supreme Court found that a
county’s liability for prisoners’ medical care includes pre-existing health
conditions. The Court further held that a county must pay the initial cost of
such treatment, but may seek reimbursement from the prisoner via means of a
civil judgment. That case involved a lawsuit filed against the Oklahoma County
Sheriff’s Office after Sheriff Whetsel refused to pay $2.25 million for medical
services provided to jail detainees. See: HCA Health Services of Oklahoma, Inc.
v. Whetsel, 173 P.3d 1203 (Okla. 2007).
Sources: Associated Press, www.fox23.com,
www.leagle.com, www.newsok.com, www.sfgate.com
(First published by Prison Legal News and reprinted here by permission)