Sarpy Board approves creation of psychiatry fellowship to treat inmates

(Sarpy County, NE) -- A new partnership will make way for the state of Nebraska's first forensic psychiatry fellowship to assess and treat inmates experiencing mental illness.

On Tuesday, Sarpy County Board of Commissioners voted 5-0 on a multi-year agreement to establish the partnership between Sarpy County and the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

The agreement calls for UNMC to provide one psychiatrist a year to perform psychiatric services, primarily for inmates with serious mental illness. Sarpy County says the fellow will provide psychiatric treatment, prescribe medication, help with medication management, provide court testimony and reports and potentially complete competency evaluations.

Sarpy County will pay UNMC $1.2 million over the course of the 5.25-year agreement. The program will begin the planning phase to ensure patients can be seen starting in 2023, shortly after the new Sarpy County Correctional Center is scheduled to open.

The fellowship will support the correctional center’s dedicated behavioral health care unit. “This partnership with UNMC will be a gamechanger for mental health treatment in Sarpy County,” said Sarpy County Board Chairman Don Kelly. “This fellowship will assist inmates who are experiencing mental health crisis and those with serious mental illnesses, and hopefully get them on a path that doesn’t lead back to jail.”

“This fellowship is the result of innovative collaboration by many dedicated and committed groups who prioritize mental health initiatives including the Sarpy County Sheriff, County Attorney, Public Defender, Region 6, the County Board, UNMC and a number of others,” said Commissioner Angi Burmeister. “We are grateful for the opportunity to work as partners with UNMC toward this common goal of improving mental health services and are excited to move forward with the first step – a formal agreement for the first forensic psychiatry fellowship in Nebraska.”

Psychiatrists taking part in the program, who complete the fellowship, will then be eligible to become board certified in forensic psychiatry and give them experience and expertise working in a correctional center setting. UNMC plans to submit the fellowship program for national accreditation through the Accreditation Council on Graduate Medical Education.

“This has been a really deliberate process that we’ve engaged in with Sarpy County, and we’re absolutely thrilled,” said Dr. Howard Liu, Chair of the UNMC College of Medicine Department of Psychiatry. “It’s innovative not only with the fellowship, but in the process, we’re creating and supporting a workforce. This is creating a new pipeline of experts, working right here in our community. This is a tremendous need and will help the quality of care and improve the system.”

Sarpy County inmates currently have some access to mental health services, while competency evaluations and restorations are completed through the Lincoln Regional Center. Adding an on-site psychiatrist fellow will more quickly address competency related needs, psychiatric medication management and other services for inmates. “At least a quarter of our inmates will benefit from having a psychiatrist on site,” said Jo Martin, Interim Sarpy County Corrections Director. “This is a groundbreaking program because it’s filling in missing pieces that the system is lacking – to bring better, more accessible psychiatric care to inmates.”

Martin said inmates with serious mental illness have a 36% chance of committing another crime after they leave jail, and treating their psychiatric needs while in jail and connecting them with community resources upon release will set them up for more positive outcomes.

The program’s primary focus will be on the county’s adult inmate population, though the fellow will also assist the Sarpy County Sheriff’s Mental Health Unit, the newly-established Sarpy County Wellness Court and see youth at the county’s Juvenile Justice Center, as necessary. “This program is addressing a need that goes unnoticed in a lot of ways, because we’re talking about inmate populations,” said Deputy Sarpy County Attorney Kate Gatewood. “This will have a significant impact getting to the core of the recidivism issue with those who have serious mental illnesses.”

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