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

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

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.

“While the petition raises a unique and somewhat confusing theory of liability which OUMC wishes to place upon the county, the petition does not include particulars of their specific claims which would allow our financial division to ascertain whether the claims were legitimate charges against the county,” the sheriff’s office said in a prepared statement. See: HCA Health Services of Oklahoma, Inc. v. Whetsel, Oklahoma County District Court (OK), Case No. CJ-2013-2068.

In 2007, the Oklahoma Supreme Court found that a county’s liability for prisoners’ medical care includes pre-existing health conditions. The Court further held that a county must pay the initial cost of such treatment, but may seek reimbursement from the prisoner via means of a civil judgment. That case involved a lawsuit filed against the Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Office after Sheriff Whetsel refused to pay $2.25 million for medical services provided to jail detainees.

See: HCA Health Services of Oklahoma, Inc. v. Whetsel, 173 P.3d 1203 (Okla. 2007).

Sources: Associated Press, www.fox23.com, www.leagle.com, www.newsok.com, www.sfgate.com

(First published by Prison Legal News and reprinted here by permission)