Health Law

Prisons and jails signing inmates up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act

  • Print.

Prisons and jails are taking advantage of the expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act and signing their inmates up for health insurance.

The law lets states extend coverage to single and childless adults—a major part of the prison population, the New York Times reports.

Medicaid does not cover standard health care for inmates, but it can pay for hospital stays longer than 24 hours. Inmates enrolled in Medicaid while incarcerated can also have coverage after they get out, the story says.

People coming out of prison have disproportionately high rates of chronic diseases, such as mental illness and addictive disorders. And many of them would qualify for Medicaid under the income test of the program in the 25 states that have expanded it, the story notes.

Experts estimate that up to 35 percent of those now eligible for Medicaid under the law are people with a history of criminal justice involvement, including inmates and those on probation or parole.

“For those newly covered, it will open up treatment doors for them” and could eventually save taxpayer dollars y by reducing recidivism, Dr. Fred Osher, director of health systems and services policy for the Council of State Governments Justice Center, told the paper.

Osher cited a 2009 study in Washington state that found that low-income adults who received treatment for addiction had significantly fewer arrests than those who did not.

Opponents of the law say allowing inmates to enroll in Medicaid only worsens the problems of an already overburdened system. They also say that shifting inmate health care costs to the federal government will deepen the deficit.

When word gets around that newly released inmates are receiving Medicaid, critics say, it could also become a public relations problem for the health care law.

“There can be little doubt that it would be controversial if it was widely understood that a substantial proportion of the Medicaid expansion that taxpayers are funding would be directed toward convicted criminals,” Avik Roy, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative policy group, told the newspaper.

Devon Campbell-Williams, an inmate in a Portland, Ore.-area jail who signed up for the program in January, said he now will have health insurance for the first time in his life when he is released in May.

“It’s going to mean a lot,” says Campbell-Williams, who broke his ankle in 2007 and has been bothered by it ever since.

Give us feedback, share a story tip or update, or report an error.