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For-profit hired for Sonoma County Jail inmates’ mental health

Further expanding the outsourcing of health care services at the county jail, Sonoma County is hiring a for-profit company to replace the county agency that has been caring for mentally ill prisoners since 1983.

California Forensic Medical Group, or CFMG, which has provided general medical services at the jail since 2000, will administer an array of psychiatric services, including mental health evaluations, group and individual psychotherapy, crisis management and psychotropic medication services.

The move displaces about 13 county mental health workers, who will be transferred to vacant county mental health department positions, said Michael Kennedy, director of the local mental health division.

The Sheriff’s Office will pay CFMG $4.6 million for fiscal year 2017-18, the first year of a five-year agreement approved this week by the Board of Supervisors. A significant portion of that cost - nearly a third - will be reimbursed by state funds, sheriff’s officials said Tuesday.

Based in Monterey, CFMG is the state’s largest private provider of correctional health care services, with contracts in El Dorado, Napa, Solano and Santa Barbara counties, and 23 others. The company provides health care in 65 corrections facilities in the state, serving about ?15,000 inmates.

Assistant Sonoma County Sheriff Randall Walker told county supervisors the contract change was part of Sheriff Steve Freitas’ review of all major contracts in the department to ensure they undergo a competitive bidding process.

Walker said the decision to outsource mental health services at the jail was not motivated by budgetary concerns but rather a goal of providing the best care at the most cost-effective price.

“What we’re putting forth today in front of you is not just about money,” Walker said. “It’s about service and it’s about quality service and meeting our obligations to the public, to ourselves and to our families.”

The Sheriff’s Office currently pays the Sonoma County Behavioral Health Division about $3.2 million for jail mental health services, according to data from the Sheriff’s Office. The new $4.6 million contract includes payment to CFMG for providing competency restoration services. “Restoration” is required whenever someone charged with a felony or misdemeanor cannot stand trial after being deemed incompetent.

Competency restoration services are usually provided at state psychiatric hospitals.

Because of the lack of state psychiatric hospital beds, local inmates often wait months for a transfer, often leading to a worsening of mental health. Jail officials hope local restoration services will shorten the wait.

Connie Newton, a Sheriff’s Office administrator, said state and federal agencies are expected to reimburse the county more than $1.4 million for providing restoration services to mental health inmates. The cost of mental health services alone will be almost $3.2 million, about the same amount paid now for mental health services provided by the county.

Kennedy, the county’s mental health director, said some of his staff currently working at the jail will likely be absorbed by the mental health department. His department will continue focusing on programs that keep people out of jail, he said.

Dr. Taylor Fithian, chief of behavioral health services and president of the CFMG, says he is grateful for the opportunity to expand the jail’s health services. He said his mental health programs would focus on reducing the amount of time those with mental illness are in jail and ensuring they don’t return.

“Our whole objective is to reduce the criminalization of the mentally ill,” Fithian said.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. ?On Twitter @renofish.

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