The nurses at the Dakota County jail have treated colds, the flu, sore backs, sprained wrists and ankles, and chronic diseases caused by alcohol and drug abuse.

For more severe medical problems, the inmates are taken to Regina Medical Center in Hastings or Regions Hospital in St. Paul. But most often, the registered nurses employed by the county's Public Health Department treat the illnesses and injuries right there at the lockup.

Starting Feb. 1, the RNs from Public Health will be replaced by RNs employed by MEnD Correctional Services, a private contractor based in Waite Park, Minn. The move will save taxpayers about $160,000 a year, said Chief Deputy Sheriff Tim Leslie.

Providing medical care for the jail in Hastings, which has 280 to 300 inmates at any given time, costs between $600,000 and $713,000 per year, Leslie said. He and Sheriff Dave Bellows began looking into ways to save money more than a year ago.

"We found out other jails were contracting with jail nursing services, so we decided to go down that path," Leslie said. A bid request brought in six proposals and MEnD was chosen. They will start Feb. 1 and will be on their own as of Feb. 4. The contract will run through the end of 2015.

The jail medical clinic is staffed from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. on weekdays and seven to eight hours a day on weekends. That won't change with MEnD. The four registered nurses employed by Public Health have been offered the chance to interview with MEnD. Those that aren't hired will hopefully find other jobs in the health department, said Bonnie Brueshoff, director of the department.

The transition will allow public health to return to its mission of prevention and health promotion, Brueshoff said. The jail medical clinic is more like an urgent-care center.

"We've done it because we're good partners and we did feel a need for a period of time," Brueshoff said. "We are proud of the job we are doing."

But, she said, the department is "very confident this is a good thing and are very supportive of the process."

MEnD currently provides jail medical services in St. Louis, Stearns, Crow Wing, Beltrami, Douglas, Otter Tail, Morrison, Milaca and Nobles counties. Dakota County is believed to be the first in the metro area to switch to a private contractor for jail nursing services. Hennepin, Ramsey and Washington counties all use county-based services.

Tina Posch, director of nurses for MEnD, said the company can provide services less expensively because "we operate it much like an urgent care clinic" and have a doctor on call at all times.

"We do everything we can humanly do inside the facility," she said. "Blood work, splinting, X-rays, EKGs. Every time an inmate leaves [the jail] there is a security risk, and once they get to an emergency room, you can't control costs. Public health doesn't have a doctor that works for public health. We are physician-driven, which makes us a unique entity."

Pat Pheifer • 952-746-3284