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Would You Like Flies With That? Problems With Privatized Food Service At BHD

Posted by Chris Liebenthal on December 23, 2009

If you or a loved one had to go to the hospital, for whatever reason, you would expect to receive a certain level of care.  You would expect the equipment to be sterile, the floors and the linen clean, and a certain amount of professionalism from the people taking care of you.

And while you would not expect to have gourmet food, you would expect to at least palatable and nutritious.  You would also expect it to meet any special considerations, such as if you happened to be diabetic, or could only eat soft foods.

If they gave you bad food, or food that you couldn’t or shouldn’t eat, I’m sure that, like most people, you would send it back and if it got to be a habit, make a formal complaint.

Unfortunately, that no longer seems to be the case at Milwaukee County’s Behavioral Health Division.  In the 2009 budget, Scott Walker initiated a proposal to privatize the food service at BHD, even though the privatized food service at HOC and the County Justice Facility (county jail) was being less than successful, being ever more costly and having near riots due to the poor quality and quantity of the food.

The County Board initially took a wiser path, but ended up stipulating to the privatization, fearing the political backlash for not feeding into the distorted view that privatization was less expensive and more accountable than if the public sector provided the work.

It wasn’t until the middle of 2009 before a private food service agency was hired and able to take over the responsibilities.  In the six or so months since they took over, there has been countless problems.

Most of the complaints were that the portions were drastically cut back and the patients weren’t getting enough to eat.

Another big problem was that the food service agency was not following the specialized diet that many of the patients required.  People without teeth were given foods that could end up being a choking hazard.  Diabetic patients were  not being given diabetic meals.  Special orders by the doctors were being ignored.

It quickly ended up getting to the point where the already understaffed nursing staff had to take extra time to not only make sure the trays were correct, but then to waste even more time trying to get the agency to send up the proper food.

If the trays are not vetted before being served and a wrong tray gets served to a patient, the state comes in and fines Milwaukee County (it has already happened).  In other words, the private agency gets to collect all the money, but faces no accountability for when they screw up.  No wonder the County Board’s Committee of Health and Human Needs have been watching this so closely.

Between the County still having to spend money on staff to monitor the trays, the County Supervisors having to oversee everything, and the very real threat of fines, it is doubtful that there are any real savings.  On top of that, I wouldn’t be surprised if the food service started charging more because they have to start serving adequately-sized portions.

Unfortunately, my friends, that is not the end of the story.

I was able to verify today that there was an incident a couple of weeks ago, when one of the trays brought to a patient was infested with bugs, reportedly maggots.

This is not only outrageous, but it completely unacceptable!

Fortunately, a county worker spotted this before it was served.  The food was not served and the worker submitted an incident report regarding this.

Having worked in the human services field for over two decades, I am fully aware of the stigma that is attached to people with mental health issues or developmental delays.  However, these are people with illnesses,  just like someone in a medical/surgical hospital.  They deserve and have the right to the same level of care and respect that anyone else does and would demand for themselves.

That the company would even consider sending a tray up to be served in that condition shows just what a poor idea it was to privatize this service.  The County Board should never have turned their collective back on their better judgment, and it is now incumbent on them to find a way to rectify this situation as soon as possible.

If this sort of irresponsible behavior from the private agency continues, it could end up being very costly due to fines and potential lawsuits.  It also put people in unnecessary danger, both to the patient for obvious reasons, and to anyone around him or her if this had set off a physical outburst of anger.

But the money considerations aside, this complete disregard for people is unacceptable, and this private company needs to go and needs to go now!

I also urge the Board to closely monitor the pending privatization of the housekeeping services there as well, seeing how poorly it’s already started out at the courthouse.


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