State Lawmakers Consider Changes to Inmate Health Care System
The state budget shortfall has prompted some lawmakers to consider ways to lower the cost of health care in the prison system, including the possible release of permanently disabled inmates, the Los Angeles Times reports. The Department of Corrections has 159,000 prisoners, about 120 of whom need assistance with "bathing, eating and other functions of daily life" and have health care costs of as much as $730 per day, according to the Times. As state lawmakers consider cuts to other state health programs, Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco) has said that the state could save money in caring for severely disabled prisoners by releasing them or moving them to lower-security facilities. "There has to be a better way to deal with them, a way that saves money without threatening public safety," Burton said. Currently, prisoners can apply for "compassionate release" if they are terminally ill and within six months of death; however, last year only 12 of 39 inmates considered for release under the provision were released. Sen. Denise Ducheny (D-San Diego) has proposed a bill (SB 278) that would allow "medical parole" for incapacitated inmates, the Times reports. Gov. Gray Davis (D) has not commented on the bill.
Michael Pickett, chief of medical services for the state prison system, said allowing some prisoners to move into hospitals staffed by corrections officers would free up beds for ill prisoners who now must be transported to community hospitals for care. The state will spend about $886 million on inmate health care this year, in part because regulations require that at least two corrections officers monitor prisoners at all times in any non-prison health care facility, according to the Times. But Larry Brown, executive director of the California District Attorneys Association, said releasing convicted criminals would be "an outrage to the victim and to the justice system." Prison officials also point out that health-related releases would not reduce the cost of care but would shift it from the prison system to Medi-Cal or Social Security (Warren, Los Angeles Times, 5/5).
The bill introduced by Ducheny is a "small but significant money-saving bill that legislators should be rushing to pass," a Los Angeles Times editorial states. Because state officials would have to deem such prisoners "permanently unable to move without assistance" or "permanently ventilator-dependent" in order to move them from prison hospitals to other facilities, the law would not provide a "get out of jail free card," according to the Times. Rather, it would "take a tiny step toward addressing the larger problem of California's graying prison population, which is driving up prison medical costs," the editorial concludes (Los Angeles Times, 5/6).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.