Thurston County sues Lacey, Olympia, Tumwater and Yelm for inmate medical costs

The Thurston County jail in Tumwater is officially called the Accountability and Restitution Center, or ARC.
The Thurston County jail in Tumwater is officially called the Accountability and Restitution Center, or ARC.

Thurston County and four local cities can’t agree on who should pay the medical bills of inmates in the Thurston County jail — the agency that initially arrested the inmate, or Thurston County Sheriff’s Office, which runs the jail.

The disagreement, which has spanned about three years, has led to a lawsuit filed in Thurston County Superior Court. The county is asking for about $174,000 from the city of Olympia, about $43,000 from the city of Lacey, about $48,000 from the city of Tumwater and about $1,400 from the city of Yelm.

Undersheriff Tim Braniff said the amounts account for three years’ worth of medical costs generated by inmates arrested by the various cities’ police departments.

“We’ve been paying (the medical costs) for years, and we decided to seek out payment,” Braniff said. “Basically, the cities felt it was our duty to pay them.”

Steve Hall, Olympia’s city manager, described the lawsuit as “friendly.” He said the two sides disagree on the issue and essentially decided to let a judge decide. He declined to comment further, and said the cities had decided to let their attorney, Michael Kenyon, elaborate.

Kenyon, of Issaquah-based law firm Kenyon Disend, said that what the case comes down to is competing state statutes — some state laws point to the county paying, while others point to the cities. He said recent comparable cases regarding conflicting statutes have gone in the cities’ favors.

The attorney said he believes that the case will be resolved without a trial.

“We want to get this done as quickly and cost-effectively as possible,” Kenyon said.

Medical costs typically come from the county’s corrections budget, Braniff said. The county allocates $366,000 per year for medical costs, including supplies and medication used in the jail. Of that sum, only $160,000 goes toward hospital visits, he said.

The problem is that the budget is often spent on one expensive inmate.

Braniff gave the example of Roy Franco, who was convicted in the 2009 murder of his ex-girlfriend, Kay Langford. Franco shot Langford, then shot himself in the head. He didn’t die, but lost part of his jaw.

“We spent a lot of time and money taking him back and forth to Harborview (Medical Center),” Braniff said. “It got expensive.”

Some inmates have insurance, and others are covered by state-run programs. But if inmates are indigent, the county typically ends up footing the rest of the bill, Braniff said.

The case is scheduled for a hearing on March 31.

Amelia Dickson: 360-754-5445, @Amelia_Oly