Whistleblower Warned of Dangerous Jail Medical Staffing Shortage

SHERBURNE COUNTY, Minn. — As of Sept. 1, 2022, the Sherburne County jail severed ties with its longtime jail doctor and his controversial company.

Internal documents and emails obtained by KARE 11 through an open records request reveal the county’s decision to end its contract with MEnD Correctional Care came after a MEnD employee blew the whistle about dangerously low staffing levels and delays in providing inmates with medical care.

“The current staffing levels put the patients and my license at risk,” Registered Nurse Corey Pearson wrote in an email cc’d to MEnD’s owner Todd Leonard and Sheriff Joel Brott.

That May 2022 email set off a firestorm.

Counties Cut MEnD

At its height, MEnD Correctional Care contracted with dozens of counties across Minnesota and Midwestern states to provide jail medical care for incarcerated people.

That number has steadily decreased over the past 10 months.

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

The suspension was over a failure to provide medical care in 2018 in Beltrami County where inmate Hardel Sherrell died on a cell floor laying in his own filth.

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 was 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.

While some counties including Beltrami, Dakota and Wright ended their relationship with the company, Sherburne appeared to be sticking with Leonard.

His first jail

Sherburne County is home to Minnesota’s second largest jail. It has the capacity to incarcerate up to 732 people and boasts on its website that it generates revenue for the county by housing more than 500 federal detainees a day.

For the past 16 years, the Sherburne jail also generated millions of dollars for MEnD and its owner. Leonard routinely tells the story of getting into the jail business because of a family friend, the former Sherburne Sheriff.

In an interview earlier this year on WJON radio, Leonard was asked how he got into correctional healthcare.

He responded, “I’m a family medicine physician by trade and back in 2000s the sheriff at that time for my home county, Sherburne County, approached me in a consulting capacity to help him find the best road to go down regarding his medical care in the Sherburne County jail and one thing led to another.”

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.

With that growth came controversy, deaths, and allegations of denied medical care.

Sherburne was not immune.

MEnD and Sherburne County settled a wrongful death lawsuit last year with the family of inmate James Lynas for $2.3 million dollars.

“There was no care provided to him whatsoever,” Lynas’ sister Charity Brown told KARE 11 as part of a 2020 investigation that exposed how Lynas, who was arrested for DWI, received no mental healthcare despite repeatedly expressing suicidal thoughts.

The partnership between MEnD and Sherburne County continued until the whistleblowing MEnD nurse fired off emails that changed everything.

The emails

On May 4, Nurse Pearson wrote an email to her direct supervisor, Diana VanDerBeek, the Nursing Director at the Sherburne County Jail Clinic, begging for help.

The email states, “I can’t take care of passing meds, urgent situations weekenders, chemical withdrawals, wound cares, abnormal BG all at the same time. I’m sorry. I know that you’re under a lot of pressure, stress, and I’m sure that you’re exhausted. The clinic situation continues to worsen putting our patients and our license at risk.”

The email ends, “I’m concerned.”

VanDerBeek responded in part, “I have shared your concerns to see if additional help would be available.”

Unknown to the public at this point, but common knowledge within MEnD, there had been a jail death days earlier in a nearby county. Records show that no MEnD nurse was available due to a staffing shortage when an inmate died in the Anoka County jail.

One day after the email to her supervisor, nurse Pearson sent a second email, this time cc’ing Sheriff Brott, MEnD’s owner Todd Leonard and other high-ranking MEnD and jail staff.

She warned that staffing levels were putting the patients – and her nursing license – at risk.

That email states, “We are about 10 days behind in sick calls and I believe 2 months behind in health assessments despite the endless hours put in by the staff remaining, including yourself. I am including jail admin and Mend with hopes that they may be able to assist in patient safety.”

Her email detailing the delays prompted Sheriff Brott to become personally involved. He wrote to Todd Leonard, “I was unaware MEnD is behind on sick calls and health assessments… Can you please immediately address how adequate staffing levels will be met and how sick calls and health assessments will be immediately caught up with.”

Leonard responded, labeling nurse Pearson’s email “a gross overstatement of the workload and situation in the clinic,” while promising to work on staffing solutions.

Contract cancelled

Those solutions appear not to have satisfied Sheriff Brott. Three weeks later he sent Leonard a notice that MEnD’s contract was being cancelled effective Aug. 31 at midnight.

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.

Sherburne County did not respond to KARE’s requests to speak with Sheriff Brott or the jail commander.

Nurse Pearson said she resigned the next day in the face of hostility from her MEnD bosses over her emails about patient safety.

KARE 11 requested an interview with Dr, Leonard about counties cutting ties with his company, but received no response. After our story was posted, however, we received the following lengthy statement:

It was brought to our attention that the station recently aired another article on our business and our work on behalf of patients across Minnesota. While the sloppy and error-laden quality of your journalism is now wearyingly familiar to us, it’s new that you apparently no longer seek comment from those who are the subject of your reporting. Your lack of balance in covering us becomes more glaring by the moment.

Had you bothered to ask us about our work with Sherburne County, we would have offered the following:

We are immensely proud of the work we did with the Sherburne County Jail and its personnel for well over a decade. Working together with the jail staff and county law enforcement over the last fifteen years, we progressively increased medical staffing, were instrumental in helping the facility earn multiple national accreditations and – most importantly – provided quality health care to more than 100,000 patients under our care. While we were disappointed in the County’s decision to seek a new medical partner, we have great respect for the team there and wish them every success going forward.

It’s worth noting that the County’s decision to put this work out for review was made in early 2022. At no time were we told in any way that the decision to change providers had anything to do with our clinical performance, and certainly the decision had nothing to do with the staffing issues that briefly affected us in May. Those issues were promptly and successfully addressed, and we are proud to have concluded this engagement with the same strong performance that was a hallmark of our work in Sherburne County. Any assertion to the contrary is just the latest in a long, sad trail of misstatements and mischaracterizations from your journalists.

Original article by KARE 11 News.


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