Thousands of inmates and parolees will be eligible for government-paid health insurance for the first time after Jan. 1.
Authorities estimate up to 95 percent of the 4,500 inmates estimated to be released from state prisons next year will qualify for health insurance under the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
The state Corrections Department last month filled the newly-created job of re-entry benefits coordinator to enroll inmates for health insurance and other government benefits.
“We’re scrambling to be able to comply” with new federal requirements, said Cindy Booth, the Correction Department’s transition and re-entry administrator. “All of the plates are spinning and a few are on fire.”
Inmates will qualify because of low or no income.
“Very few individuals are not eligible for some type of coverage as they walk out the door because they are not going to have employment, they are not going to have family to return to with the family covered,” Booth said.
The state Audits Division last August recommended the Corrections Department take on the task of helping departing inmates get health insurance. Auditors said the insurance would help more parolees get treatment for substance abuse issues. The Corrections Department calculates that 70 percent of the state’s 14,707 inmates have such issues.
State auditors also said the expanded health coverage “has the potential to relieve financially-stressed counties of nearly all costs of providing substance abuse treatment to offenders in the community.”
Federal research concludes that expanded care also could reduce recidivism, which stands at 25 percent in Oregon.
“Because of the lack of addiction and mental health care resources, our prisons and jails have become warehouses for people who don’t have access to treatment,” said Shannon Wight, deputy director of the Partnership for Safety and Justice, a nonprofit focused on criminal justice issues. She sid that prisoners released without moving into treatment “contribute to recidivism and unnecessary costs.”
Corrections experts say the expanded health insurance will ensure not only addiction treatment but care for chronic medical and mental health issues common in inmates.
Without such care, “these people are at greater risk of falling through the cracks and committing new crimes – jeopardizing public safety and public health and increasing public spending on incarceration,” according to a research paper by Community Oriented Correctional Health Services, a national nonprofit.
“It’s such an amazing opportunity, really, for individuals coming out of prison to have something available.”
Booth said the prison system isn’t just handing inmates a health card as they leave prison. She said the agency also is trying to arrange appointments with medical clinics for inmates with high medical or mental health needs. She said the agency is also working with local corrections officials so inmates have someone on the outside waiting to help them through health care issues.
Linking inmates to medical care may not be easy.
“Just because they get coverage doesn’t mean providers are ready to see them right away,” Booth said. “Access to treatment will be an issue.”
The new coverage also applies to county jail inmates and those on parole and probation. Under the federal law, coverage is cut off for individuals put into custody.