Sniff

10:00 PM PDT on Monday, March 28, 2011

By DUANE W. GANG
The Press-Enterprise

Budget cuts have put Riverside County’s inmate medical care out of compliance with state law, exposing the county to potential lawsuits or court oversight, Sheriff Stan Sniff said.

“We are currently in crisis,” Sniff said in a letter this month to county officials.

In January, 47 registered nurses were providing medical care to the county’s 3,600 inmates, down from 158 nurses in 2007, Sniff wrote.

No medical services are provided at the Blythe jail and, at other jails, inmates have had to wait as long as a month for care, he wrote to County Executive Officer Bill Luna.

“Improper provision of medical care to the inmates exposes the Sheriff’s Office to civil liability under both State and Federal law,” Sniff wrote.

Sniff has ordered an independent review and inspection of the county’s inmate medical care and will brief supervisors on the situation at an afternoon budget workshop today.

At the sheriff’s request, the state’s Corrections Standards Authority conducted a preliminary review earlier this year that found the county’s inmate medical care was inadequate and recommended the outside analysis.

“It is a big deal,” Sniff said in a telephone interview Monday. “The red lights and flags are popping up all over the place.”

Medical and mental health officials said Monday that budget cutbacks have had a negative effect on the services provided in county jails. But the county’s executive staff doesn’t believe the cutbacks rise to the level of putting the county at significant risk of a lawsuit, Board of Supervisor Chairman Bob Buster said.

“They feel we are not in violation,” Buster said. “They have heard of no case out of the jail that poses this kind of liability problem.”

Inmate medical care is currently provided by Riverside County Regional Medical Center’s Detention Health Services and the county’s Department of Mental Health.

The two have faced cutbacks in recent years, and more are expected in the fiscal year starting July 1.

Combined, the two departments providing inmate care cost the county general fund $17.7 million in the current fiscal year, down from $23.9 million in fiscal 2008-2009, according a memo Luna sent to the Board of Supervisors. Next year, the amount is expected to decrease to $14.2 million.

“We may very well have a situation where the only jail that has medical services is in Riverside,” Sniff said. “You can understand the danger.”

The county currently is under a two-year plan to balance expenses with ongoing revenues and end reliance on one-time reserves to plug the gap.

Department administrators, including the sheriff, will brief supervisors over three days this week in workshops on how additional reductions will affect services.

The Sheriff’s Department presented a fiscal 2011-2012 budget that was $81 million over the executive office’s targeted amount, according to a report before supervisors today.

Included was $20 million to fund inmate medical care. In addition, the figure included a $26.1 million shortfall from this year’s budget cuts; $12.7 million to fully fund the 582-bed expansion of the Larry Smith Correction Facility in Banning; $10.2 million to meet mandatory raises for employees; $7.8 million from a proposed 3 percent general fund cut for next year; and $4.3 million from increased internal county fees.

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