Another View: Inmate health bill warrants passage
Congress, whose approval rating hasn't topped 30 percent in more than a decade, has been offered a chance to prove it can accomplish something despite the chaos that is the Trump presidency.
New Hampshire Rep. Annie Kuster has teamed up with New Jersey senator and presidential candidate Cory Booker to sponsor a bill that would right a historic wrong, provide a measure of property tax relief, combat the opioid epidemic, improve health care for the 2.3 million people behind bars in the United States and slow the revolving door that sees most of them return once released.
The bill is called the Humane Correctional Health Care Act. It deserves the support of every member of Congress, whether Democrat, Republican or independent.
The bill would end the federal Medicaid Inmate Exclusion policy which, since the founding of the low-income health care program in 1965, bans inmates from participating and kicks out those already covered by the program if they wind up behind bars.
The exclusion is unfair and disproportionately hurts the poor.
Nearly two-thirds of all jail inmates at any given time are awaiting trial and presumed innocent. But because they are behind bars they automatically lose access to health care covered by Medicaid. Arrestees who can make bail or are freed on personal recognizance do not lose coverage.
The exclusion punishes local taxpayers.
County jails and other correctional facilities by law must provide health care to inmates. Because of the exclusion, the cost of that care is paid by local taxpayers, not by state and federal government, which split the bill 50-50 for Medicaid recipients.
The exclusion is counterproductive.
Nationally, more than two-thirds of jail and prison inmates have a substance abuse or addiction problem and 80 percent suffer from mental illness, substance abuse or both. Patients already in treatment, usually in states like New Hampshire that expanded Medicaid eligibility under the Affordable Care Act, lose access to it once incarcerated and grow sicker. They also become more likely to re-offend once released. That means more robberies, break-ins and crime victims.
When introducing the act, Rep. Kuster said, "If you were to design a system to fail Americans, including taxpayers, families, communities and those with substance use and mental health issues, this is the system you would design."
New Hampshire has approximately 2,600 inmates in state prison and another 2,000 or so in its county jails. Health availability varies by county. A lack of resources means that many inmates receive minimal treatment for mental illness or addiction problems. That contributes to a three-year recidivism rate of 47 or so percent. Prison intake staff see many familiar faces.
Kuster's bill would expand on programs like the one introduced by Merrimack County Department of Corrections Superintendent Ross Cunningham, a pioneer in intelligent approaches to incarceration and its alternatives. The program, including one underway in the county jail in Boscawen, allows inmates to continue drug and mental health treatment. That includes treatment with drugs like methadone and Suboxone used to wean people off opioids.
If Kuster's bill passes, the cost of that treatment would be borne by federal rather than local taxpayers and be widely available.
As we said earlier, eliminating the inmate exclusion deserves bipartisan support. We believe it will get it. But just to be sure that the president signs it, the bill's sponsors should rename it. It should be called the Trump to the Rescue Correctional Health Care Act.
— The Concord (N.H.) Monitor, Oct. 27
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