Medicaid will already be expanding under Obamacare to include more low-income individuals and families, but soon prisoners coming out of jail may also be eligible for its benefits. Certain states will be able to save millions of dollars — in Ohio’s case, $18 million this year — in health care costs for prisoners, if they choose to give ex-inmates Medicaid elibigibility, state health officials say.
The federal government would then cover the costs of prisoner treatment, saving the states a large sum of money. “It is a huge benefit for the state and for the individuals because they’ll have a continuum of care and we can link them with the benefits they need,” Stuart Hudson, managing director of health care for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, told USA Today.
The majority of immediate savings for the state would be Medicaid coverage for prisoners, Hudson said. Medicaid is the health care program aimed at low-income families and individuals. The Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, would expand Medicaid benefits starting this year to include people who make up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, which is around $15,800 for a person and $32,500 for a family of four.
Ohio, in particular, could see 95 percent of the 20,000 prisoners released each year become eligible for Medicaid. The move could have long-term benefits as well, especially in curbing the numbers of repeat offenders by offering ex-inmates access to mental health care as well as substance abuse services, both of which are required to be covered under the Affordable Care Act.
Under the original 1965 Medicaid law, people entering state prisons immediately lost eligibility for Medicaid, along with people in juvenile and state mental institutions. Since states and local governments had previously covered prisoner health care, the federal Medicaid program wasn’t necessary; but in 1997 an exception to that rule offered inmates leaving prison a chance to have their hospital bills paid by Medicaid. However, most prisoners still remained unqualified.
Others believe the long-term benefits of placing prisoners on Medicaid wouldn’t become apparent for decades down the line. “One can imagine that, if people get coverage and are able to access care for their conditions, it will prevent costs down the road, but it’s not something you would expect to see the results of even in the next five to 10 years,” Amy Rohling McGee, president of the Health Policy Institute, told USA Today. “It will be further out than that before we know.”
Hudson hopes to have formal enrollment in place in the next few months so that prisoners could begin signing up as they’re released. “We’re working with Medicaid to come up with the exact tools to help them sign up,” Hudson told USA Today. “We feel we can do it with the current resources we have.”
Other states undergoing similar efforts include Maryland, Illinois, Minnesota, and Oregon, according to Maeghan Gilmore, director of health and human services for the National Association of Counties. “The real challenge for all of them is whether there are available resources and capacity because, largely, they are not in the business of enrolling individuals into health care,” Gilmore told USA Today. “But they all recognize how this might impact their numbers in terms of keeping individuals from coming back over and over again.”
According to the Council of State Governments, currently about 90 percent of state prisoners have no insurance. One in every eight inmates is estimated to have a mental health disorder. Taxpayers pay up to $15 billion every year to treat prisoners with psychiatric disorders.