State spends millions each year on inmate health care

Posted: Sunday, December 02, 2007

ANCHORAGE - The state is spending millions on health care for sick prisoners without private or government health benefits and officials with the Department of Corrections believe that number will only go up.

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The Alaska Department of Corrections is seeing growing medical costs for prisoners because of an aging and growing prison population. Last year, it overspent its $24 million health care budget by $4 million.

Health officials say that prisoner care can be a delicate balancing act between taking care of prisoners and making financially sound spending decisions on behalf of the public.

"Once someone is a prisoner, society has a whole different view on them. That's where we come in. We can't let that be," Commissioner Joe Schmidt told the Anchorage Daily News.

Recently the state has paid for prisoners to undergo open heart surgery and extensive chemotherapy, said Dr. Rebecca Bingham, clinical director for state prisons.

The state currently has about six prisoners with kidney failure who require expensive dialysis four times a week.

About a dozen inmates each cost the state more than $100,000 in medical care each year.

At the end of 2002, Alaska had 93 inmates 60 or older in the prison system. In 2003, the number increased to 104. At the end of 2006, there were 126.

Bingham said the state pays for the minimum of what is medically required.

"We are tasked with providing essential health care," she said. "Essential is interpreted to mean general health is affected or loss of life or limb."

Schmidt said one example of an expensive patient is Robert Hale, also known as Papa Pilgrim, who was recently sentenced to 14 years in prison for crimes that included sexually assaulting his daughter.

"There's a guy who society is very mad at," Schmidt said. "We're going to keep him locked in a very expensive jail and pay his medical bills for as long as he's alive."

Alaska spends more money per prisoner than most states, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. In 2001, the national average medical care cost per prisoner was $2,625, according to a report from the department. In Alaska, it was $4,047 per prisoner.

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