The sight of sheriff's deputies taking handcuffs off apparent prisoners and leaving them on their own for care at Hutcheson Medical Center has unnerved emergency room personnel and prompted complaints.
An emergency room nurse and other workers recently said they were worried about people who seemed to be in police custody being uncuffed and dumped at the emergency room, placing hospital staff at risk.
"We've been hit, and we've been bit" by people dropped off by deputies, said part-time hospital security officer James Jones.
He and others spoke at the March 10 town hall meeting in Ringgold, Ga., to spread information about partnership negotiations between Hutcheson and Erlanger Health System in Chattanooga.
Employees suggested local sheriff's offices are releasing prisoners to avoid responsibility for their medical bills.
"It's just obvious why they do it. They're just releasing that person to get out from under a bill," Hutcheson Security Manager Don Bethune said in a phone interview.
But local sheriffs say they would never leave a violent offender unsupervised, and anyone they leave at the hospital already has been released on bond.
Catoosa County Sheriff Phil Summers said emergency room workers could feel less safe because the hospital has cut back security to save money.
"It's unfair for Hutcheson's employees to say, 'We're in fear because the sheriff's office brings people over here and leaves them,' when their administration is the one that made the decision to cut down on security to save money," he said.
Scaled-down security at Hutcheson is part of the issue, Bethune agreed.
The security staff, once 10 to 12 full-time workers and eight part-time workers, has been cut to two full-time workers and nine part timers, he said. None is armed.
Walker County Sheriff Steve Wilson said it's departmental policy to handcuff anyone transported in a police vehicle, even if technically he or she has been released from custody. Hospital staff who see someone being uncuffed and dropped off may not understand those people aren't in custody, Wilson said.
"We never, ever bring someone in that's charged with a criminal offense and leave them unattended unless that person has been released on a judicial order," Wilson said.
The Hamilton County Sheriff's Office has similar rules, although Sheriff Jim Hammond said once prisoners are released, even if they need medical care, deputies typically won't take the them to the hospital.
The sheriff's office is responsible for medical bills of people in custody but not for bills incurred after they are released, Summers said.
Summers said his office spends about $200,000 annually on inmate medical costs, which includes on-staff nurses and contracts with doctors who treat inmates. Less than $25,000 goes to Hutcheson, he said.
"We're not talking about huge amounts of money," Summers said. "This thought they have about avoiding paying medical costs, they're still talking about minor costs."