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Oklahoma: Hospital Sues Sheriff over Unpaid Medical Bills, for the Third Time

By Christopher Zoukis

For the third time in the past eight years, Oklahoma County Sheriff John Whetsel has been sued for damages by a local hospital, which accuses him of releasing dozens of jail prisoners to avoid having to pay their medical bills.

Prior lawsuits involving Whetsel’s handling of detainee medical costs have resulted in county officials paying more than $8 million in settlements. The latest action, filed on April 5, 2013 in Oklahoma County District Court, alleges that the sheriff’s office has run up at least $924,085 in medical bills at Oklahoma University Medical Center (OUMC) since March 2011, excluding interest, while paying only $52,402 to the hospital.

OUMC officials contend that Sheriff Whetsel has deliberately circumvented a state law that requires counties to pay the medical costs of prisoners held in their custody. “The county and the sheriff have developed a practice of … purporting to ‘release’ inmates from custody before, and even after transporting them to the hospital, and then deny liability for the necessary medical care by saying the inmate is no longer in the county’s custody,” the lawsuit alleges. “This practice … is a blatant effort by the county and the sheriff to absolve themselves of their statutory and constitutional duty to provide medical care to inmates.”

According to the complaint filed by OUMC, the sheriff’s office has released at least 37 prisoners on their own recognizance in order to avoid paying their medical bills. OUMC officials argue that such releases are an ongoing problem and in violation of the same laws that were at issue in prior lawsuits filed against the sheriff’s office.

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