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POINT OF THE MOUNTAIN, Utah (AP) -- To keep health costs down and provide better care for older inmates, prison medical staffers are focusing more on preventative strategies.
"It's really kind of the big thing in prison medicine," said Dr. Richard Garden, director of the state Department of Corrections' Bureau of Clinical Services.
"If we can prevent a heart attack, it's a lot cheaper than treating a heart attack," he said. "Plus, you have a healthier, happier patient."
The prison spends about $500 yearly for an inmate under 55, compared to about $7,500 for those 55-plus, he said.
Unchecked heart problems or diabetes can land an inmate in the intensive care unit of University Hospital for two weeks, costing the state $100,000. That funding flows through Corrections, which like most state agencies has been hit hard by budget cuts in recent years.
An additional problem among inmates is "they have a lifestyle that's somewhat reckless," Garden said.
That lifestyle often omitted proper diet and exercise and included alcohol, cigarette and drug use.
"Physiologically, these guys have led such a hard life," he said.
New measures at the prison infirmary include a high blood pressure clinic and a Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease clinic. Inmates with the conditions are seen by a doctor and undergo tests.
A nurse then meets with them to discuss items like diet and exercise, and charts keep track of their condition over time.
Prison staff waive the usual $4 co-payment for inmates participating in the clinic.
About half of the over-55 population are sex offenders, said Corrections spokesman Jack Ford. The others were convicted of "serious (offenses) against a person," Ford said. "It's not a burglary or an auto theft."
An inmate who is quadriplegic after a spinal injury has been living in the prison infirmary for two years, despite the fact it is not equipped to handle such long-term cases, Garden said.
Sometimes, such inmates can be given a compassionate release and are paroled to a nursing home or other care facility, or terminally ill inmates are given leave to die at home.
But Garden said such releases can be difficult decisions for the state Board of Pardons and Parole.
"Just because you have cancer doesn't mean you can't go out and harm someone," he said.
(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)