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Illinois Supreme Court Holds Prisoner Medical Co-Payment Fee Can’t Be Deducted From Future Funds

Illinois Supreme Court Holds Prisoner Medical Co-Payment Fee Can't Be Deducted From Future Funds

by John E. Dannenberg

The Illinois Supreme Court held that the Illinois Department of Corrections' (IDOC) regulation levying a $2 medical/dental co-payment fee against an "indigent" prisoner's trust account and placing a hold on all future deposits prior to the prisoner's release was inconsistent with the enabling Illinois statute that only permitted charges against a current account balance.

Willie Hadley had been charged a $2 co-payment fee 22 times in two years for requested medical/dental services in state prison. He complained that he was "indigent" and, by statute, therefore exempt from these charges.

Hadley apparently did not have such funds in his prison trust account, but IDOC placed a negative balance, or hold, on any future funds that he might receive prior to his release from prison. He was never denied needed services, but complained that the IDOC regulation implementing the permanent fee debit was irreconcilable with the enabling Illinois statute. While the statute provided for an indigency "exemption," the IDOC regulation added the caveat that "indigency" was not limited to one's current balance, but encompassed the duration of one's incarceration. His petition for relief to the district court below was denied.

The state appellate court reversed upon its statutory construction of the challenged terms "indigent" and "exempt" as used in the statute (730 ILCS 5/3-6-2-f) and in the regulation (20 Ill. Adm. Code § 415.30 (2005)). The statute reads, in pertinent part, "A committed person who is indigent is exempt from the $2 co-payment and is entitled to receive medical or dental services on the same basis as a committed person who is financially able to afford the co-payment." In contrast, the regulation, at § 415(g)(3) reads, "An offender who is found to be indigent shall be exempt from the co-payment. An offender shall be considered indigent if during the entire term of his or her incarceration the offender is without funds to pay the $2.00 co-payment." Finding for Hadley, the appellate court sanguinely observed, "Just as a matter of pure logic, it is impossible to both charge the co-payment to an inmate's account and exempt the inmate from the co-payment."

The Illinois Supreme court reviewed the alleged ambiguity between the statute and regulation. The Supreme Court first noted that IDOC's regulation was problematic because it was unevenly applied. That is, those prisoners sentenced to life or death could never get their fee balances discharged because they would never be released. The court further observed, "If all inmates are always subject to the co-payment [per the regulation], then no inmate is ever not subject to the co-payment and no exemption exists.?" Yet, per the statute, "an inmate's indigence is the very condition that triggers the application of the exemption."

Try as it may, the IDOC could not convince the court that its "once-an-indigent-always-an-indigent" argument squared with the enabling statute. The court was sympathetic with IDOC's concern that scheming prisoners might time their medical requests to just follow their purchases, but precede their next deposits, so as to gain endless medical visits while avoiding all fees. The court noted Massachusetts and Pennsylvania regulations that provided a window long enough to "catch" monthly flows of deposits to ensure fee deductions, and suggested that IDOC's regulation-making powers would enable them to promulgate such protections for Illinois. However, the current language did not permit the endless negative account balances that IDOC had imposed. Accordingly, the Supreme Court affirmed the appellate court, thus returning the case to the district court for further proceedings. See: Hadley v. The Illinois Department of Corrections, 224 Ill.2d 365, 864 N.E.2d 162 (Ill 2007).

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Related legal case

Hadley v. The Illinois Department of Corrections