The Medical Costs and Jail Custody Task Force includes lawmakers and representatives from hospitals, law enforcement, municipalities and the Oklahoma Health Care Authority.
“We are studying the very difficult problem of when jails are liable for prisoner medical care and when they're not,” said Sen. Charles Laster, D-Shawnee, co-chair of the panel. “Also, we're trying to study if there are any new ideas for a funding source for those really high-dollar claims when the sheriff is responsible for medical care.”
The increasing cost of medical care for indigent inmates is putting a squeeze on cities and counties across the state, who are faced with footing the bill when prisoners, most of whom have no health insurance, become sick.
“We're spending over $5.5 million a year on medical care for inmates, and that doesn't include what some would like us to spend on the medical care for pre-existing conditions,” said Oklahoma County Sheriff John Whetsel. “If we were having to pay for pre-existing conditions, we would have to pay even more.”
If the medical costs are the result of a pre-existing condition, Whetsel said the county is not obligated to pay for the care, which leaves hospitals to foot the bill.
“We understand that local governments are very strapped to provide this care,” said Patti Davis, executive vice president of the Oklahoma Hospital Association. “At the same time, it's expensive care for the hospitals to provide, and most of these patients don't have the resources to pay for that.”
Among the solutions discussed Monday were making sure eligible inmates apply for Medicare and Medicaid coverage and having hospitals provide services for counties and municipalities at a reduced rate.
Oklahoma County Commissioner Jim Roth stressed the importance of developing a system that applies statewide so there is a uniformity in billing and definitions of medical care and inmate custody.
“My hope is that this task force and the Legislature will adopt a statewide solution, because this is a growing dilemma that will face every city and county across the state,” Roth said.