As jail health care costs soar, counties seek help

Legislation aims to keep insurers paying for inmates

Jails' health care costs soaring

BEND, Ore. - Health Insurance costs are on the rise - and that's not news to most. But it's also a problem that is affecting county jails in Oregon, and they are turning to Salem for some help.

Oregonians who get arrested and go to jail often lose their health insurance benefits, and counties start picking up the cost of their medical care.

Even more frustrating for sheriff's offices is the fact that people who haven't even been convicted of a crime yet lose their benefits already.

Oregon sheriffs are asking the Legislature to require health insurers to cover inmates until they go through a trial or conviction and sentencing.

They say the high and sometimes unexpected costs end up cutting money available for deputies and patrols.

 "In many cases, these inmates are in custody awaiting trial," said Darrell Fuller, general manager and lobbyist for the Oregon State Sheriffs Association.

"This means their coverage is cut, even though they have not been found guilty of any crime. As health care costs increase, other important functions of the office of Sheriff are underfunded (...)"

The Insurance industry argues the Constitution requires the government to provide care for inmates.

House Bill 4110 would not make changes to the health care laws for inmates once incarcerated, but rather before the person has been found guilty.

A House committee passed the measure and it's now in the joint Budget Committee, a step that the Deschutes County Sheriffs Office is welcoming.

"First of all, we are supportive of having this House bill move forward," Capt. Shane Nelson said Monday. "Because there are some private health care insurers who will not represent inmates and pay for their medical bills while they are incarcerated."

The numbers speak for themselves. Health care expenses in the jail added up to over $774,000 in Deschutes County in 2012.

It is not the average inmate's health care cost that is worrying officials.

"You never know if you're going to have an inmate that has medical issue who comes into the facility," Nelson said. "We've in the past had inmates that come to the facility that have significant medical issues."

Those patients can quickly cost $300,000, as one inmate with kidney failure did.

The average age of inmates is rising, and with it the cost of health care.

The annual health care cost for an inmate 30 years or younger is around $300, while it jumps to over $6,500 for those over 70.

The health care portion of the prison budget in Oregon jumped from $50 million in 2003-2005 to over $216 million in the last two-year budget cycle.

While lawmakers consider the bill, the sheriff's office tries to limit health care costs as much as possible.

"Right now, what we do is we go and meet with medical providers and try and get the discounted rate," Nelson said. "So we will ask for the Medicaid rate."

These rates can make a huge difference. In the case of the inmate with kidney failure, the price dropped from over $300,000 to around $30,000.

Despite those discounted rates, the sheriff's office says health care costs remain a major problem.

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