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Salt Lake County won't escape liability for medical bills incurred by its jail inmates, the Utah Supreme Court ruled Friday.

Instead, the county, by law, must cough up the cash to cover its jail population's emergency-room visits - a reversal of an earlier district court decision in the county's favor.

"I'm happy," exclaimed the physicians' attorney, Brian King, moments after the ruling's release.

The lawsuit emerged in 2003 when Emergency Physicians Integrated Care (EPIC), a professional organization that collects and bills for doctors, sued the county to recoup the costs of prisoner care at several valley hospitals.

It's not that the county refused to pay anything - although some bills have gone unanswered. It's that officials wanted to pay the much-lower Medicaid rate.

Doctors objected. EPIC Chief Executive Officer Robert Parker said the reduced rate would have compensated physicians less than 30 cents on the dollar for their services.

"We shouldn't be foisting on the E.R. doctors that they not only have to treat these people," King said, "but do it at a loss."

The county has denied any legal responsibility to reimburse physicians for the full cost of their services. And the district court suggested further that the county may have no obligation to pay at all, court records state.

But Utah's high court put that financially liability squarely on the county's shoulders Friday.

The county can hire its own medical staff or "outsource" to someone else, the unanimous ruling states, but it retains responsibility for inmate medical care.

"The county is not acting as a passive third party to a primary relationship between the physicians and inmates," the court wrote. "Instead, the county has complete control over when and where medical services are provided and therefore dictates the means by which its constitutional obligation is fulfilled."

What the justices did not decide is the price the county should pay. Instead, they remanded the case to the district court to decide what constitutes a "reasonable cost" for overdue bills that EPIC estimates in the six-figure range.

The Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office declined to comment on the ruling Friday, saying attorneys had not yet reviewed it.

EPIC chief Parker applauded the decision and said he remains hopeful of an amicable end in negotiating bill payments.