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Health care staffing raises questions at Allegheny County Jail Oversight Board meeting

allegheny county jail incarceration inmates.JPG
An-Li Herring
90.5 WESA

The medical director at the Allegheny County Jail was reassigned earlier this week, reigniting ongoing concerns about staffing shortages and the quality of physical and mental health care at the facility.

Allegheny Health Network provides some medical services and personnel in the jail, including nurse practitioners, physician assistants, and doctors. Dr. Donald Stechschulte was the jail’s medical director. A spokesperson for AHN confirmed that Stechschulte has stepped down and is “transitioning to another AHN primary care office.”

“We are working with the jail to recruit a new medical director of its health services. In the interim, while that process unfolds, medical services at the jail will be covered by other AHN physicians in conjunction with the jail’s clinical staff.”

The spokesperson did not immediately respond to questions from WESA about why Stechschulte decided to leave the position.

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“The jail appreciates the leadership, hard work and dedication displayed by Dr. Stechschulte during his tenure at the jail and wishes him the best in his future endeavors,” said jail spokesperson Jesse Geleynse. “As the jail collaborates with AHN to fill the vacated position, the administration looks forward to transitioning to a new director who possesses strong medical and administrative credentials that can lead the jail in its ongoing efforts to best serve and treat the incarcerated population.”

Dr. Bill Johnjulio is currently serving as the jail’s interim medical director. The job has been posted on AHN’s hiring page.

Jail officials have struggled to fully staff the facility in recent years. Corrections officers detail long hours and mandatory overtime. Jail officials have acknowledged that mental health practitioners and nurses are not always available in the intake department, which can delay patient care.

The jail budgets for about 162 health care staff to serve the facility. Warden Orlando Harper’s February report listed a total of 94 vacancies, including 12 registered nurses, five mental health specialists and four pharmacy/medication technicians. That’s a roughly 58% vacancy rate between staff hired directly by the county and those staffed through AHN.

At a jail oversight board meeting on Thursday, jail health services administrator Dr. Ashley Brinkman said that when contractors are factored in, the vacancy rate is closer to 23%.

According to Geleynse, “There are no medical directors or healthcare providers employed by the jail – they are all employed by Allegheny Health Network and assigned to the jail. Currently there are two primary care physicians and three psychiatric physicians assigned to the jail through AHN.”

The board was not notified about the personnel change. Harper said administrators “had a plan and just didn’t feel that it was an emergency situation to notify the jail oversight board.” He declined to share details about the plan with the board. He said the plan had not been documented or written down, just discussed.

High-level medical staff at the jail have been subject to a lot of turnover in recent months. In October, Wilson Bernales, who along with Stechschulte was one of two medical doctors employed at the jail, was suspended “pending assessment of his qualifications and state license.” The move followed a report from the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism which found that Bernales had his medical license suspended, revoked or denied in at least eight different states.

Attendees at Thursday’s expressed concern about how the staffing shortages are affecting incarcerated people.

In response to a recent survey from the Pennsylvania Prison Society, incarcerated people said they experienced long wait times for mental and physical health care and had trouble getting their prescription medications at the jail. They described inadequate mental health care and, even though 65% of respondents said they had been diagnosed with a mental health condition, just 5% said they regularly received individual therapy and 3% said they participated in regular group therapy.

The jail and its leadership is currently being sued in federal court over the treatment of mentally ill people held at the facility. Expert witnesses for the plaintiffs said the jail’s mental health care is “shockingly substandard.”

Their investigation found a medical staffing shortage and lack of adequate training. They said incarcerated people were routinely punished for seeking mental health treatment and did not have privacy to discuss mental health issues.

“Based upon my 26 years working in mental health, I can assure you that many people are not going to disclose thoughts about suicide or hearing voices in the presence of others on a cell block,” said public commenter John Kenstowicz. “A critical problem at the jail is the staffing crisis, and residents as a result are more vulnerable to suicide, death and altercations with the staff.”

Others asked the board to exercise their statutory authority to improve conditions at the jail.

“People in the jail are dying. People aren’t receiving their basic medical care that they need. We hear this month after month at these meetings, in the newspaper and directly from the people who are harmed by the jail’s medical care,” said Jodi Lincoln, co-chair of the Pittsburgh Prison Book Project.

“You as the board are just as responsible as the jail and AHN for this medical staffing crisis. You’ve known about this for years now. What do you have to show for it?”

Julia Zenkevich reports on Allegheny County government for 90.5 WESA. She first joined the station as a production assistant on The Confluence, and more recently served as a fill-in producer for The Confluence and Morning Edition. She’s a life-long Pittsburgher, and attended the University of Pittsburgh. She can be reached at