2023 Board of Supervisors | Credit: Ingrid Bostrom

There was much talk of “heartburn,” being “in a pickle,” or feeling “bent over a barrel” among the Santa Barbara County supervisors and jail administrators Tuesday as they pinched their collective noses and approved a $14.5 million contract to secure another seven months of health care for inmates at the county’s two jails. This marks the fourth time the supes have extended the jail health-care contract initially awarded to the company Wellpath, which specializes in providing medical and mental-health care to those held behind bars and brings the total amount the county has spent on Wellpath’s services in the past six years to $71 million. 

Aside from the high cost involved, the supervisors expressed much vexation at being asked to approve yet another contract extension — the sixth — without the benefit of this year’s annual evaluation of the company’s performance. That report was due in February; the supes won’t see it until October 17. 

Wellpath’s contract was the target of a blistering critique by this year’s Grand Jury, which blamed the company’s failure to staff psychiatric professionals at the jail from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. for contributing to some of the five jail deaths it investigated. Wellpath’s contract does not require 24/7 staffing of mental-health professionals. The Grand Jury recommended that the contract must be changed. The Grand Jury also blamed the death of one openly suicidal inmate on Wellpath’s failure to pass along information its employees knew to jail personnel. Wellpath cited the laws governing patient confidentiality for not passing this info along. 

Stan Roden, a member of the Grand Jury that wrote those reports and a former Santa Barbara County district attorney, urged the supervisors to hold off on ratifying the contract extension until Wellpath and the County Sheriff’s Office, which oversees jail operations, respond to the Grand Jury reports and recommendations. The contract was initially scheduled to have been extended in February, Roden noted, and waiting another month, he said, would not cause undue heartburn. 

Brian Smith, a regional manager with Wellpath, said the delay would only exacerbate many of the problems when it comes to recruiting, training, retaining, and overseeing skilled medical professionals in the jail. This past year, such staffing problems led the county to penalize Wellpath $27,500 for failing to maintain contractually stipulated staffing levels. 

Wellpath’s Smith took full responsibility and the blame for being late with this year’s evaluation report, but when pressed as to why, he replied he needed more time to enumerate all the company’s accomplishments, like the 11,000 mental-health evaluations of inmates and the 55,000 nursing visits that took place in the past year. 

Jail administrators praised Wellpath as a good partner who hung in there without a contract and went seven months without payment. 

The supervisors — unanimously — weren’t buying any happy talk, and Joan Hartmann led the charge demanding that the county’s Department of Public Health be assigned significant oversight authority for future health care in the county jail. To date, such oversight has been the sole domain of the Sheriff’s Office, so that would be a big change. 

Since 2022, there have been eight deaths in the county jail system, many of which involved inmates with chronic mental health and substance abuse issues. Supervisor Das Williams blamed Wellpath staffing shortages for long delays in inmate intake processing, which in turn has worsened an overtime spending crisis that’s long plagued county jail operations. This past year, Williams said, jail overtime costs hit almost $17 million. 


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