The city-parish is looking to spend nearly $100,000 to study the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison’s medical operations, after medical workers complained in August that they are dangerously understaffed, underfunded and overworked.
About 10 medical staff members begged the Metro Council for a lifeline during the council’s August meeting, saying they lack supplies as simple and basic as Neosporin and as critical as EKG machines to show if a patient is having a heart attack.
Prison physician Rani Whitfield said their top need is hiring more nurses, who are spread so thin that one or two often cover shifts meant to be filled by five.
An agenda item set to be introduced at a Metro Council meeting next week would give $95,000 to consulting firm Health Management Associates to analyze the prison’s medical operations. But the idea of spending the money on a consulting firm rather than giving it directly to the prison doesn’t sit well with Councilwoman C. Denise Marcelle.
She and Councilwoman Donna Collins-Lewis said when the issue was raised in August that hiring an outside firm to study the problems was not an immediate-enough fix.
Marcelle said Thursday that the money for consultants could be better spent on raising salaries or on hiring more nurses. The jobs are not the most attractive of positions, with starting salaries for nurses ranging from $17 to $18 an hour and the highest-paid nurse still earning under $25 an hour.
“We’re spending $95,000 on a study when we know that part of the issue is to raise the salaries,” Marcelle said. “We don’t have to study that. That’s common knowledge at this point. The doctors know what kind of support staff they need.”
Marcelle said the city should rely on the doctors and nurses who work at the prison to tell them what issues need to be addressed, rather than on an outside consultant. She also voiced concerns that the city might be held liable if any lawsuits are ever filed over medical staffing problems in the city since those problems are now common knowledge.
Prison medical workers told the Metro Council of harrowing conditions at the prison. They say the closure of Earl K. Long Medical Center in north Baton Rouge and the Baton Rouge General Medical Center-Mid City emergency room have contributed to their problems and to the lack of resources. Four of the 25 nurses on staff were out on stress leave, while they need 35 to 40 nurses to properly serve the prison, nursing director Beatrice Stines said.
“It’s true that we have a sicker inmate population, and without proper resources, supplies and more boots on the ground in the form of nursing staff, we are unable to efficiently care for the patients’ increasing morbidity, mortality and, ultimately, liability,” Whitfield said in August.
Health Management Associates describes itself as a national research consulting firm that specializes in publicly financed health care. It is a different company from the for-profit hospital corporation, also called Health Management Associates, that was the subject of multiple whistleblower lawsuits over wrongfully admitting patients to hospitals to reap extra money.
The proposed study of prison medical operations is only up for introduction next week, so the Metro Council would not be expected to vote on the item until later in the month.