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KARE 11 Investigates: Counties cut troubled jail medical company

Citing litigation risks along with legal and ethical issues, some Minnesota counties cut ties with the jail medical company at the center of a KARE 11 investigation.

BUFFALO, Minn. — More than a dozen counties across Minnesota have already cut ties with – or are considering replacing – a troubled medical provider linked to recent jail deaths, according to records obtained by KARE 11.

The owner of MEnD Correctional Care was sanctioned by the state medical board in January in connection with one of the deaths.

The Wright County Board voted unanimously this month to utilize an opt out clause in their contract with MEnD, citing the company’s “legal and ethical problems.”

“We have an opportunity to improve our medical services to our inmate population and reduce the risk and liability to the Sheriff’s Office and the County,” the jail administrator wrote to the board.

Dakota County also recently ended its contract with MEnD Correctional Care, citing “a decline in fulfilling services” and accusing the company of billing for services not being provided.

Suspended License

In January, the state medical board indefinitely suspended the license of Dr. Todd Leonard, MEnD’s founder and owner.

Leonard grew MEnD to become the largest jail medical provider in the state, overseeing the medical care of thousands of inmates by contracting with dozens of facilities.

One of those jails was in Beltrami County where in 2018 inmate Hardel Sherrell died on a cell floor laying in his own filth.

Credit: KARE 11
Hardel Sherrell died on a Beltrami County jail cell floor.

A KARE 11 Investigation in 2020 revealed that Sherrell’s pleas for help were often ignored by jail and MEnD medical staff who wrongly believed he was faking.

A former MEnD nurse practitioner who treated Sherrell, and one of the few who tried to get him help before he died, lodged a complaint against Leonard with the medical board, saying “I felt like I witnessed a murder.”

Administrative Law Judge Ann O’Reilly issued a findings of fact blasting Leonard for “careless disregard for the health, safety and welfare” of Sherrell.

The judge noted that “in attempting to defend the indefensible,” Leonard blamed his staff for giving him inaccurate or incomplete information about Sherrell.

O’Reilly chastised Leonard, saying “he is being held responsible for his own negligent actions and inaction, for his own failure to obtain information and adequately supervise his staff.”

In addition, the judge recommended that “scrutiny should also be applied to the contracts MEnD maintains with Minnesota counties and municipalities …”

Citing harm to patients, the Minnesota Nurses Association has called on all jails in the state to reconsider using MEnD.

KARE 11 surveyed sheriff’s offices that utilize MEnD and discovered to date 14 jurisdictions have ended their relationship with the company or report being in the process of exploring other options.

We’re Not Paying This

Dakota County moved to cut MEnD even before the judge’s ruling after the county manager was forced to sign an emergency contract with another medical company to ensure care for its inmates, records obtained by KARE 11 show.

The county accused MEnD of failing to provide round-the-clock nursing services, despite that being required in the contract Dr. Leonard signed.

Credit: KARE 11
Dakota County refused to pay invoices for services they say MEnD never provided.

Internal emails also show Dakota County twice caught MEnD submitting bills for drug treatment services they were not providing.

Records show MEnD submitted an invoice for $6,187 in September, and in October, another for $12,375 for Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT) services, a crucial program to help inmates struggling with opioid addiction.

Dakota County Commander Pat Enderlein, who runs the jail, told KARE 11 that MEnD agreed to hire a full-time nurse and part-time health technician to launch a MAT Services program, but never followed through. 

“They were never hired nor placed in our facility, yet we were billed for them,” Enderlein said.

Internal emails show county employees telling MEnD, “our office will not be paying this invoice until the nurse and health tech are hired.”

The MAT program never launched.

Severing Ties

Wright County Jail Administrator Captain Pat O’Malley said to improve continuity of care for individuals as they leave the jail, they’ve been considering transitioning their jail medical services to Centra Care, which has facilities in the community.

The county decided to opt out of their MEnD contract after Dr. Leonard had his medical license suspended, even though the company hired another doctor to take over as medical director. 

Credit: KARE 11
Wright County Jail Administrator Pat O'Malley recommended ending MEnD's contract.

O’Malley said, “Obviously it did play a role, with the things that are going on currently, it probably made the decision a little bit easier for people to make this change.”

Other counties that have severed ties with MEnD or are in the process of doing so include Beltrami — which is under both federal and state investigations and facing a civil rights lawsuit for the death of Hardel Sherrell — Clearwater, Morrison, Mille Lacs, and Wilkin counties.

A KARE 11 investigation exposed how Veteran Bruce Lundmark died at the Clearwater jail shortly after being sent there from the Beltrami lockup due to overcrowding.

Records show he’d been in intense pain for days and begging MEnD staff in Beltrami for care that never came. He died of an untreated GI bleed.

Seven other counties tell KARE 11 they currently are either actively seeking bids for other jail medical providers or are researching other options.

That includes Sherburne County, which, along with MEnD, settled a wrongful death lawsuit last year with the family of inmate James Lynas for $2.3 million dollars.

“We are currently in the process of evaluating other service providers,” said Sherburne County Sheriff Joel Brott.

Credit: KARE 11
Hardel Sherrell's mother Del Shea Perry has urged jails to cut ties with MEnD Correctional Care.

However, some Sheriffs who rely on MEnD to care for their inmates are staying put.

Hubbard County Sheriff Cory Aukes wrote KARE 11, “We still have a contract with MEND and will continue using them until we can find another provider that is able to provide services that are just as good for less money.”

Houston County Sheriff Mark Inglett wrote, “At this time, we have not looked into severing our relationship with MEnD. I am aware they have had some challenges in the past, however, their services with us has been more than acceptable.”

Anoka County officials refused to say whether they are considering replacing MEnD. Last year, a KARE 11 investigation revealed that Anoka County had awarded MEnD a multi-million dollar contract based on incomplete and misleading information.

Todd Leonard has repeatedly refused to answer questions and has not responded to KARE 11’s interview request regarding his company’s loss of taxpayer-funded contracts.

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