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Oklahoma County, hospital fight over inmates' medical bills

Mar 2, 2015 | by Lynn Powell

An ongoing legal fight between OU Medical Center and Oklahoma County over who should pay for jail inmates’ emergency medical care is now in the hands of the state Supreme Court. The hospital is seeking roughly $3 million from the county to cover the unpaid medicals bills, marking the third time in the past 10 years it has asked the courts to assist in resolving a dispute with Oklahoma County. An Oklahoma County district judge ruled in December that while the Oklahoma County sheriff’s office has a “constitutional duty” to provide medical care to all county jail inmates, there is no complementary duty to force it to pay for that medical care. Those rulings are now being examined by the state Supreme Court.

An ongoing legal fight between OU Medical Center and Oklahoma County over who should pay for jail inmates’ emergency medical care is now in the hands of the state Supreme Court.

The hospital is seeking roughly $3 million from the county to cover the unpaid medicals bills, marking the third time in the past 10 years it has asked the courts to assist in resolving a dispute with Oklahoma County.

An Oklahoma County district judge ruled in December that while the Oklahoma County sheriff’s office has a “constitutional duty” to provide medical care to all county jail inmates, there is no complementary duty to force it to pay for that medical care.

Those rulings are now being examined by the state Supreme Court.

Attorneys for the hospital filed the latest lawsuit against Oklahoma County Sheriff John Whetsel and the Oklahoma County Board of Commissioners in April 2013, claiming the hospital was owed the seven-figure total for medical services provided to indigent inmates between 2011 and 2014.

The county settled two prior lawsuits with OU Medical Center, in 2005 and 2010, for a combined $8 million.

In court filings, the sheriff’s office is again accused of not paying inmates’ medical bills or only paying a fraction of what the hospital claims it’s owed.

Kieran Maye, the hospital’s attorney, wrote in a court filing last week that the Oklahoma County Commissioners Board has paid only $266,940 of the roughly $3 million the hospital claims it is owed.

Maye alleges that in addition to flat-out refusing to pay the medical bills, the sheriff’s office uses court-issued releases to shirk responsibility of other obligations.

“This practice of issuing ‘medical OR’ releases to patients with severe medical conditions is a blatant effort by the county and the sheriff to ‘sever’ their statutory and constitutional duty,” Maye wrote in court filings.

Details of the suit

A recent ruling on key parts of the lawsuit by Oklahoma County District Judge Bernard Jones has done little to resolve the dispute.

The county’s lawyers quickly appealed the judge’s order to the state’s highest court and the two sides argued their cases before an Oklahoma Supreme Court referee on Wednesday. A decision from the state Supreme Court isn’t expected for some time.

In a four-page ruling, Jones wrote that OU Medical Center is entitled to just $804,472 of the roughly $3 million it had been seeking, though the hospital could collect more money, depending on future court rulings.

In his ruling, Jones also dismissed Whetsel from the lawsuit, writing that financial obligations in the case are the responsibility of the Oklahoma County Commissioners Board.

And on the legality of the so-called “medical OR” or medical own recognizance releases, the judge ruled that the hospital “has standing to challenge the effect of the medical OR orders,” though Jones noted that only three inmates are being described as “Medical OR” patients in court papers.

“The Court finds, however, that once medical OR orders are entered or bond was posted, the county no longer has liability for the medical care provided to those inmates after the time of release,” he wrote.

“The county is liable, however, for the medical care provided up until the time of release…A fact question exists as to what costs were incurred before and after the release of those three inmates.”

Jones said he will rule on three additional issues in the dispute between the county and hospital in the future, though no time frame is given in court documents.

“The Court finds that the only remaining issues of material fact relate to the issue of the amount paid by the County for detainee medical care, the timeliness of those payments and whether those payments entitle the County to a discount (based on state law),” the judge wrote in the order.

What it means, so far

Oklahoma County Treasurer Butch Freeman said — so far — the county “is on the hook for roughly $1 million,” when interest is figured into the total.

If the rulings are upheld, Freeman said, the money will be paid to the hospital by the county’s taxpayers.

“If it is a judgment, in accordance with Oklahoma statutes, it will go on the tax rolls,” he said.

“It will be paid over a three-year period at the statutory rate…5.25 percent.”

Freeman said the impact to individual taxpayers should be minimal, noting that a homeowner with a $200,000 residence would end up paying less than a quarter per year to satisfy the judgment, if it stands.

Over the past several years, Oklahoma County jail inmates in need of emergency medical care have been transported to OU Medical Center, which is obligated to accept and treat indigent patients because of its tax-exempt status, court records show.

Maye said the sheriff’s office continues to bring sick and badly injured inmates to the hospital’s emergency room, noting that medical bills continue to mount.

“This situation is ongoing,” he said.

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