Inmates on way out get help with health plans

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RICHLAND, Wash. (AP) — The Benton County jail is joining a growing number of corrections facilities in the state and beyond in helping some uninsured, soon-to-be released inmates apply for Medicaid coverage.

It's an effort aimed at reducing recidivism and improving outcomes for the inmates — and the community as a whole.

Local officials say it's an important and progressive step.

"The inmate population is really transient. They (often) don't seek the services they need," said Dee Willis, one of the four professional chaplains at the jail. "This coverage will enable them to easily go to a clinic after they're released and get care.

"I think it's revolutionary."

Wes Luckey, director of the local Navigator In-Person Assister program for the state health insurance exchange, added, "Once a person is released from jail, it can be difficult to get them back (to a mental health or medical provider) for treatment. It's easier to coordinate care when it's seamless, going from jail-provided care to care in the community."

Willis, Luckey and several others helped shepherd the agreement — among the county, Lourdes Health Network and the state Health Care Authority — for the jail enrollment assistance.

Under the pact, Lourdes Counseling Center staff will be able to help Medicaid-eligible inmates who are to be released within 30 days fill out applications for the state-federal insurance program for the low income. In Washington, Medicaid now is called Apple Health.

Many more in the jail — and in the state's population as whole — are eligible now because Washington participated in an expansion of Medicaid under federal health care reform that extends coverage to most people with an income up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level.

The coverage won't kick in until the inmates are released. While inmates are in jail, the county or cities that sent them bear the medical costs.

Benton County Sheriff Steve Keane said that many jail inmates have substance abuse and/or mental health issues that contribute to them cycling in and out of the criminal justice system.

While behind bars, they can stabilize, sober up. If they have better access to coverage and care after release, the chances of breaking that cycle go up — and that leads to reduced health care and incarceration costs, officials said.

"It's important that people understand the reason we're doing this — it makes sense not just for the inmate, but for the community as well," said Melanie Olson, manager of jail services for Lourdes. "Hopefully, it will help reduce recidivism and keep people healthier while they're in the community, so they're not having to access the emergency room or get care at the last minute, which isn't the most effective course of treatment for any disorder — medical or mental health."

"This is something that makes sense across the board," she said.

The jail sign-up program won't cost the county any extra money; Lourdes already has staffers working in the jail by contract, and the enrollment help will be added to their duties.

It's expected to start soon.

The state-based health insurance exchange, created under the federal Affordable Care Act, went live last year.

A variety of private health plans, or "qualified health plans," are available for purchase through the exchange. The second open enrollment period is under way now. Nearly 60,000 people have signed up for qualified health plans or renewed coverage for 2015, according to information from the exchange last week.

Thousands more have signed up for or renewed Apple Health coverage. Enrollment in that program is year-round.

While the Apple Health application assistance in the Benton County jail is new, staffers have offered other kinds of re-entry help for inmates. Willis and his fellow chaplains, for example, make referrals to housing, education and chemical dependency groups and other social services.

The county also is taking steps to better deal with inmates with mental illness. It's considering a 6,800-square-foot addition to provide dedicated mental health space.

The estimated construction cost is $3.8 million, with the addition to include about 21 beds largely in a mix of single and double cells. It also would have several safety cells specially designed for inmates who are on suicide watch.

The county also is poised to start a mental health court and diversion program, aimed at better dealing with lower-level offenders who are in contact with the system primarily as a result of their mental illness.

Those programs are in the planning stages, to be paid for with money from a 0.3 percent public safety sales tax approved by county voters last summer.

Carol Moser, executive director of the Benton-Franklin Community Health Alliance, who also helped with the jail agreement, said access to health insurance is a first and critical step in the continuum of care.

She'd like to see the enrollment assistance model that's rolling out in the county jail used in more jail facilities in the region — and she feels it can be applied to other local programs, like the mental health court.

It fits with the goals at the heart of a plan to improve the state's health care system, she said. Washington has applied to the federal Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation for $92.4 million to implement the innovation plan.

Moser said the jail enrollment work is "a great step" for the community — one that's the result of collaboration. "This is a progressive move to improve our whole system," she said.


Information from: Tri-City Herald,

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