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Florida County Jail Discontinues Medical Co-Pay Policy

by David M. Reutter

Saying it was “not even worth it” to collect an $8 medical co-payment from prisoners seeking medical care, Florida’s Pinellas County Sheriff Jim Coats has abolished the practice at his jail. In these tough economic times that have squeezed budgets, it is surprising Coats would forfeit $50,000 in annual revenue.

Jails and prisons across the nation have turned to co-pays. Officials say it reduces bogus ailments. “The money obviously is a big part…but the other side of it is there are some inmates who would go to the doctor every day,” claimed Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC) spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger. “And if they have a medical need, they need to go, we want them to go. But this minimizes inmates who might be trying to game the system.”

When Pinellas County began its co-pay system in 1995, it said demand for medical care by prisoners was reduced by half. Paperwork related to the program, however, caused a bureaucratic nightmare. With over 350,000 prisoner medical visits in 2008, the co-pay required more time than it was paying for.

“The administrative reviewing and tracking of all that cost us more than we make,” said Pinella’s chief Deputy Bob Gualtieri. Other officials hope medical personnel will be able to focus on their main mission more. “The nurses should be seeing inmates and treating them,” said Lt. Sean McGillen, “not filling out paperwork for co-pays.”

The decision to discontinue collecting co-pays comes as a surprising move, especially after the Pinellas Sheriff’s Office had its budget reduced by a quarter, which hacked $67 million and 363 positions. Coats said he planned to increase revenue via the increased $20 booking fee.

Pinellas’ policy change is a stark contrast to the decision Florida lawmakers made during their last legislative session. They increased FDOC medical co-pay from $4 to $5. In FY 2008, FDOC collected $640,000 to offset the millions it pays for medical care annually, which continues to increase due to the prison population becoming older.

Other Florida counties near Pinellas charge from $5 to $20 for medical or dental care. Federal prisons assess a $2 co-pay for medical visits.

Despite the popular trend to require prisoners to make medical co-payments, Pinellas County feels it takes too much effort and sacrifices services, resulting in lawsuits and staff chasing co-pays. There is no correlation between charging prisoners for medical care and whether that care is adequate.

“It doesn’t make good business sense,” Coats said. “You can only squeeze so much juice from an onion. Sometimes it gets to the point where it’s counterproductive.”

Source: St. Petersburg Times

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