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KARE 11 Investigates: Nurses union calls on jails to cut ties with controversial care provider

Friday rally protests lack of action taken against doctor whose company is at the center of a KARE 11 Investigation into needless inmate deaths.

ST PAUL, Minn. — The Minnesota Nurses Association is calling on jails across the state to stop using a controversial private company to provide medical care behind bars.

Representatives of the MNA joined a small crowd outside the offices of the Minnesota Board of Medical Practice on Friday to call for action against Dr. Todd Leonard, whose company provides health care to more jail inmates than any other in the state.

The rally’s leader, Del Shea Perry, has demanded action against Leonard’s license since the 2018 death of her son, Hardel Sherrell, in the Beltrami County jail.

"They can not continue this rampage of killing our babies and senseless deaths, it must stop now," Perry said.

The MNA has sent letters to every county in the state that uses Leonard’s company – MEnD Correctional Care – urging the counties to consider cutting ties with him, KARE 11 has learned.

“As members of the health care team we know the need for, and believe in the right for, all patients to receive quality care,” the MNA wrote to the counties. “It is our advocacy for patient safety and care that compels us to write to you today to encourage you to reconsider your contract with MEnD Health Care.”

MEnD was the jail health care provider when Sherrell was mistakenly thought to be faking paralysis as he laid in his own waste on his cell room floor.

Sherrell’s pain and paralysis was real; he died in his cell in agonizing pain.

A KARE 11 Investigation found that nearly all of Sherrell’s jailers and care providers dismissed his pleas for help and failed to follow up on numerous red flags that could have potentially saved him. 

Credit: KARE 11
Members of the Minnesota Nurses Association joined a rally calling for jails to cut ties with MEnD,

"What happened to Hardel Sherrell is unimaginable," said Jeanette Rupert, an intensive care nurse and MNA member. "That is a poor representation of the oath and the care we swore to give. It’s got to stop."

Nurse testifies following complaint

One of the few care providers who did believe Sherrell, former MEnD nurse practitioner Stephanie Lundblad, filed a complaint in 2018 with the medical board and other state agencies about Sherrell’s care. In her complaint, she described Leonard telling her that she shouldn’t jump to conclusions about Sherrell’s death.

“He then said that jumping to conclusions could jeopardize the company,” Lundblad wrote.

She said Leonard told her Sherrell likely killed himself or stuck a sock down his throat.

In an exclusive interview with KARE 11 in May, she said, “I felt like I had witnessed a murder.”

Leonard’s attorney did not respond to a request for comment for this story. Last year MEnD said in a statement:

“By way of context, over the last decade, we have provided quality medical care to thousands of individuals in correctional facilities across the upper Midwest. Over this time, we feel that we have made a tremendously positive impact on our individual patients, and our industry as a whole. The work we do is challenging, but it needs to be done with compassion, care and professionalism. We work hard to live up to those standards and are proud of the quality healthcare that we have delivered.

MNA cites ‘troubling history’

Leonard, who was disciplined by the medical board in 2011 following what it would call “unethical and unprofessional conduct” when he was in private practice, has been under fire for other inmate deaths during MEnD’s watch.

Several of those deaths have resulted in lawsuits and multi-million dollar payouts, KARE 11 has found.

   

Beltrami recently voted to end their contract with MEnD. Public records show Sherburne County is considering taking the same action.

With Leonard’s medical license on the line, Lundblad testified at a July hearing in front of an administrative law judge. 

The administrative law judge was to make a recommendation to the Medical Board as to whether any action should be taken against Leonard. However, that recommendation has not yet been issued.

The Board is not bound by the judge’s recommendations and can either accept, reject or follow part of them.

Unless the Board sanctions Leonard, none of the records pertaining to the agency’s investigation will be made public.

Leonard also declined to comment to KARE 11 outside his hearing in front of the administrative law judge this summer.

In calling on counties to consider cutting ties with MEnD, the MNA – which represents 22,000 nurses in Minnesota – cited much of KARE 11’s reporting on Leonard.

“This service provider has a troubling history of adverse events and death in multiple Minnesota Counties,” the MNA wrote, while also citing investigations being by the FBI and the Attorney General’s Office, which KARE 11 has also reported.

Perry and the MNA were joined by other supporters at the rally, including Black Lives Matter Minnesota and the NAACP-Duluth Chapter.

In a statement, the NAACP-Duluth Chapter called for an end to using MEnD as a jail care provider. 

"In its failure to provide competent health care in correctional facilities Todd Leonard consistently violates the eighth amendment rights of every person incarcerated in Minnesota correctional facilities."