Uninsured workers frustrated over free health care for inmates

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by Diane Moca

MILWAUKEE -- When inmates step behind bars they lose precious rights. but some gain something they may never have had before -- access to free medical care.

"They are literally the only population in the United States of America that gets guaranteed free health care," said Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke.

He says Milwaukee County spends $16 million per year on medical costs for prisoners, covering their doctor visits, dental work, medications and more.

Jail inmates pay $7.50 for their first medical visit and $10 for their initial dental visit -- and nothing more, no matter what kind of care they need.

"Looks like the prisoners have it made, at our expense," commented Travis McGill of Milwaukee.

James Greer, Health Services Bureau Director for the Department of Corrections, said the state prison system spends $130 million a year for inmate health care -- from hopitalizations and psychotherapy to eye glasses and hearing aids.

State prisoners also pay $7.50 for doctor visits and Wisconsin taxpayers pick up the rest -- an average of more than $6,000 a year per prisoner on medical care.

"NInety-five percent of offenders are going to go back to the community. If they go back to the community and aren't any better physically or mentally than when they came in, they're going to come back to us," said Greer.

He said if a prisoner needs radiation, chemotherapy, kidney dialysis, heart surgery, or organ transplants, it's all covered for free "if they meet the criteria."

Greer said as long as there is a "medical need," the inmates are put on the same waiting list as others needing organ transplants.

Some say a free ride for criminals is unfair to working families who may lose their home, life savings and more if one of them is diagnosed with a catastrophic illness.

Local attorney Jamie Miller says the biggest cause of bankruptcy is burdensome medical expenses -- expenses that prisoners' families never have to confront.

"It does seem like an injustice. But we're a nation of laws," explained Sheriff Clarke.

Both Clarke and Greer said they cannot reduce the services offered because they are guaranteed by the Constitution and upheld by the Supreme Court.

"But it doesn't say the Cadillac of medical care," added Clarke. "It just says a reasonable standard."

Both say they've saved taxpayers millions of dollars by switching from name brands to generic drugs and say they could bring costs down even further if Medicaid covered inmate hospital stays.

Clarke says he could cut another $2 million a year if the county approved outsourcing jail health care to a private firm.

But that still doesn't help someone deciding whether to sell the family home to fund cancer treatment while prisoners, with or without money, get it all free.

Clarke said he has heard "from time to time" about people who allegedly commited a crime just to get catastrophic medical bills covered.

"It's more of a myth than anything. I'm not saying it's never happened," he added.

The state director says inmates do have to wait weeks or months for non-emergency treatment.

The dilemma over how far coverage needs to go to be humane, and how quickly to offer the care, is only going to exacerbate as the prison population ages.

"The Department of Corrections is now caring for thousands of inmates in their 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s," noted Greer.

He says the inequity between inmates with health care coverage and uninsured workers without will be eliminated when all Americans get access to health insurance through the President's plan in 2014.

If you have an issue you'd like us to investigate, please send an email to dmoca@cbs58.com.

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