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Health and Human Services dept. to take oversight of health care inside Utah prisons

A men’s maximum security unit from a security lookout in the new Utah State Prison in Salt Lake City is pictured on Oct. 21. The Utah Department of Corrections announced Friday that the state Department of Health and Human Services will assume responsibility for health care services in Utah's prison system beginning July 2023.

A men’s maximum security unit from a security lookout in the new Utah State Prison in Salt Lake City is pictured on Oct. 21. The Utah Department of Corrections announced Friday that the state Department of Health and Human Services will assume responsibility for health care services in Utah's prison system beginning July 2023. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)


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SALT LAKE CITY — The Department of Health and Human Services will assume responsibility for health care services — including medical, dental, optical, mental health and pharmacy — in Utah's prison system beginning July 2023.

The announcement was made Friday by the Utah Department of Corrections in an effort to "better align governmental services best-equipped to oversee them," a news release from the agency says.

The transition was also announced by Gov. Spencer Cox while releasing his proposed budget for the next fiscal year. The budget priorities included additional funding for medical services in the prison system, but that was subject to review by the Utah State Legislature.

The transition will move responsibility away from the Clinical Services Bureau, a division of the Utah Department of Corrections to the Department of Health and Human Services. The approximate 200 employees in the Clinical Services Bureau will continue to work for the state's correction system, the release says.

The transition comes after a recent medication crisis in the prison system following the transfer of prisoners to the new state prison in Salt Lake City.

The problem regarded a prescription backlog that began when the department migrated its data to a new system called Fusion. The backlog prompted a response from the Department of Health and Human Services, which provided additional staff members to navigate the problem.

"Ensuring continued high-quality clinical outcomes for patients in state custody should be important to all of us, from a humanity perspective," Cox said. "All Utahns deserve the opportunity to live safe and healthy lives, and that does not cease upon incarceration."

The medication crisis in the prison system and department response "created an opportunity for dialogue around whether a team of people with such vast specialized medical knowledge should oversee clinical functions on a day-to-day basis," the release states.

In addition to the medication crisis, a 2021 audit by the Office of the Legislative Auditor General recommended that the Utah prison system's Clinical Services Bureau improve systemic deficiencies. Among the recommendations were better access to medical care, prescriptions and mental health services.

While responsibility will transition between departments, all clinic staff will remain in their positions. Additionally, the agencies will work to "ensure there is no interruption to services provided to Utahns experiencing incarceration during the coming months," the release adds.

There are approximately 2,600 men and women incarcerated at Salt Lake's Utah State Correctional Facility, 1,750 men at the Central Utah Correctional Facility in Gunnison, and another 1,500 men and women under state supervision assigned to various county jails.

"We are so grateful to each of these women and men for performing one of the more difficult and important jobs in state government," said Department of Corrections executive director Brian Nielson in the release. "Access to quality health care and mental health services plays a critical role in improving the lives of these women and men, and creating safer communities for all of us."

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Ashley Fredde covers human services and and women's issues for KSL.com. She also enjoys reporting on arts, culture and entertainment news. She's a graduate of the University of Arizona.

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