Oklahoma County Sheriff John Whetsel is being accused of releasing sick inmates just before they are admitted to the hospital in order to avoid paying for their treatment.
In one case, records show an inmate was released on their own recognizance even though he or she wasn't in court when the judge signed the order.
In the space where the inmate would have signed their name, there is instead a handwritten note, in all capital letters.
“Not signed, defendant in hospital ... incoherent,” the note reads. “Sheriff will serve a copy of this bond to (the) hospital.”
The inmate's name is redacted from court records, but the criminal charge the individual was being held on before being released was “robbery in the first degree,” a violent felony.
Filed by OU Medical Center, the suit claims the sheriff's office owes the hospital nearly $1 million and accuses Whetsel of essentially abandoning patients to circumvent a state law that requires counties to pay for the medical costs of prisoners in their custody.
From March 2011 to February, the lawsuit alleges the hospital treated 37 inmates from the Oklahoma County jail. The hospital claims those medical bills totaled $976,487.
Court records reveal that the sheriff's office has paid only $52,402 of that total.
“The sheriff and county have either refused to pay for the care provided to a particular patient or unilaterally decided to pay some amount less than what was due and owing,” the hospital's attorneys wrote in the petition, which was filed April 5 in Oklahoma County District Court.
Whetsel, who has not responded in court, told The Oklahoman in a prepared statement that “there is not much information which can be provided” at this time.
“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 said.
Attorneys for the hospital allege that Whetsel has developed a practice of “unlawful abandonment of patients.”
“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 attorneys wrote.
“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.”
The hospital's attorneys claim the sheriff has been issuing “Medical OR” releases for some time and will likely continue to do so unless a judge forces them to stop.
According to documents filed by the hospital's attorneys, the sheriff's office is being charged 6 percent interest on the remaining balance of $924,085. Because of this, the hospital claims it is owed an additional $29,640 and that interest continues to accrue at a rate of $151.90 per day.
The lawsuit filed April 5 against Whetsel isn't the first time the hospital has taken the sheriff to court in recent years. The hospital sued the sheriff two other times after Whetsel simply refused to pay medical bills of prisoners in the county's custody.
The previous suits, filed in 2005 and 2010, were settled after Oklahoma County officials agreed to pay more than $8 million to OU Medical Center.
Documents provided by the hospital's attorneys show more than half of the money owed to OU Medical Center is traceable to one inmate.
The inmate, who is not named, was admitted to the hospital in December 2011 and stayed roughly a month.
He was treated for what was described in court documents as an “intracerebral hemorrhage.”
The total cost of the inmate's treatment was $501,931. None of it has been paid, documents show.
The lawsuit filed against Whetsel is pending in Oklahoma County District Court.