Inmates paying for health care not helping much, sheriffs say

WAYCROSS, Ga. -- Ware County Sheriff Randy Royal might be mistaken for running a mini-hospital.


The county jail averages 348 inmates daily. Its head nurse and six licensed practical nurses provide medical care to the inmates, many of whom suffer from chronic illnesses.

“We have 200 inmates currently getting prescription medication ranging from blood pressure to psychotropic drugs for mental health conditions,” Royal said.

Many don’t have insurance or other financial means to pay for their health care. That means, under law, taxpayers must foot the bill. Funding to meet that requirement, however, is in short supply statewide.

It’s a conundrum confronting sheriffs and state prison officials throughout Georgia.

A law signed by Gov. Sonny Perdue on April 21 has good intentions but offers limited help, Royal and other Southeast Georgia sheriffs said.

The reimbursement measure is intended to help offset medical costs for inmates able to pay. It allows state and county corrections officials to deduct money from an inmate’s account to pay for some of their medical costs.

If inmates have at least $10 in their accounts, officials have the authority to deduct money to pay for medical treatment and prescription medicine for injuries the inmates inflicts on themselves or others. Authorities can’t deduct money from inmates diagnosed with a severe mental condition at the time the injuries occurred.

The law also excludes costs related to pregnancy or chronic illnesses including cancer, kidney disease, pulmonary illness, diabetes, hepatitis C, high blood pressure, rheumatoid arthritis or autoimmune disorders. Those expenses still will be borne by the county or state, according to the measure.

“I see no immediate benefits from this law for us,” Royal said. “The people we typically deal with have no insurance and few if any financial resources with which to pay.”

Nonetheless, Royal said “we’ll definitely be looking for ways this law can help us.”

When booked, every Ware jail inmate undergoes a health screening and is checked for infectious diseases before being placed in the general population.

Medical care is available to inmates 24 hours a day, he said.

Its inmate medical costs totaled $781,344 last fiscal year. That cost averaged $6.39 per inmate per day, Royal said.

As of Wednesday, he said, they’ve spent $640,182 for inmate medical care this fiscal year, which began July 1.

Ware inmates are receiving medical care for conditions ranging from pregnancy and diabetes to high blood pressure and HIV, he said.

Camden County Sheriff Tommy Gregory faces a similar situation. He’s budgeted slightly more than $300,000 for inmates’ medical care this year. Gregory plans to use the reimbursement law as much as possible.

“We’re going to try to recoup any inmate health care costs that we can on behalf of the taxpayers,” he said.

Gregory said he will seek that reimbursement from inmates’ insurance, if they have it, or their account.

Because the measure is new, the sheriffs haven’t worked out the details of implementing the reimbursements.

“Any way we can make people pay their fair share and save the taxpayers money, I’m all for it,” Gregory said.


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