Over serious concerns, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors agreed this week to extend the contract again with Wellpath, the medical and mental health provider in the jails.

The supervisors said they felt like they had no choice but to approve another year of the contract, for $14.7 million.

The Santa Barbara County Civil Grand Jury pointed at deficiencies in the jail health providers, and Sheriff’s Office supervision, in reports released a few months ago.

Those came after a class action lawsuit settlement between the county, the Sheriff’s Office and disability rights groups for “dangerous and unconstitutional conditions” in the Main Jail.

Stan Roden, who served on the Grand Jury writing those reports, urged the supervisors not to extend the Wellpath contract.

One troubling aspect of the jail contract is the lack of mental health services available from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., Roden said, “on the mistaken belief that somehow physical problems exist 24/7 but mental health issues stop for some reason at 11 o’clock at night.”

Grand jurors were asked to investigate eight or nine deaths in custody, but they only had time to address five, he said.

For four people who died in the jails, each person’s mental health or substance abuse issues were ignored or not communicated across different agencies, contributing to their deaths, the Grand Jury found.

The reports recommend 24/7 mental health services in the two county jails and mental health training for law enforcement and jail health providers.

At Tuesday’s meeting, all five county supervisors were frustrated with the late request for a contract extension, and said they don’t want the concerns to go unnoticed.

However, they felt forced to extend the agreement because of the timing – the current one ended five months ago.  

Brian Smith, a regional director for Wellpath, admitted the contractor has been late with the required annual reports, and said delaying a contract renewal any more would be a financial hardship.

Renewing the contract means the company gets paid for the work it’s done since April, and it gets money for recruiting and retaining staff, he said.

“We feel culpable up here, too. It’s our job to oversee what’s happening, and if we don’t get that report, we can’t do our job,” Supervisor Joan Hartmann said.

The supervisors asked staff to look at Public Health doing some oversight for the jail medical system, which will be discussed with Wellpath’s annual report at an Oct. 17 meeting.

Responses to the Grand Jury report findings and recommendations are also due in October.

Vincent Wasilewski, head of custody operations for the Sheriff’s Office, said contract negotiations with Wellpath started in January, but the Sheriff’s Office was “hampered” by what the Grand Jury was asking it for, what the class action settlement was asking it for, and its own bureaucracy.

Supervisor Das Williams said law enforcement officers can wait a long time for bookings when the jail intake medical team is short-staffed, leading to more overtime costs.

Wasilewski responded that nurses can be called away from intake to deal with emergencies at night.

“It doesn’t happen as frequently, even though it probably shouldn’t happen at all,” he said.