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More prisons helping inmates enroll in Medicaid at release

Updated: Jan 17, 2014 09:59 AM

FRIDAY, Jan. 17, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Some prison systems are enrolling prisoners in Medicaid to lower costs and help inmates have health care when they're released, a new study finds.

The findings come as some states expand the number of low-income people who are eligible for medical coverage through Medicaid.

"We know that an increasing number of prison systems -- although far from all -- are helping prisoners enroll in Medicaid in preparation for their return to the community," Dr. Josiah Rich, director of the Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights, based at the Miriam Hospital in Providence, R.I., said in a hospital news release.

"Enrollment improves access to basic health services, including substance-use and mental-health services, and can in turn benefit the health of the communities and families to which prisoners return," Rich said. "There is a possibility that there will be decreased recidivism as people get treatment for their mental illness and addiction."

The researchers came to their conclusions after talking to state prison officials from the end of 2011 through mid-2012.

Officials from 42 prison systems responded to the survey. Two-thirds said they eliminated Medicaid coverage for prisoners when they went behind bars, and 21 percent suspended coverage. Of these systems, however, more than two-thirds helped prisoners get back on Medicaid upon their release, the survey found.

More than one-third of the state prison systems check into whether prisoners are eligible for Medicaid when they need treatment behind bars.

Things have changed since 2000, when almost all states cut off Medicaid when prisoners were incarcerated.

"The difficult reality is that terminating Medicaid during incarceration, which is what is occurring in the majority of prison systems today, can be harmful to this population, as well as costly to the general public," Rich said. "Instead, we should be moving toward using this period of incarceration as an opportunity to reduce expensive post-incarceration emergency-room and inpatient hospital care."

The study appeared online Jan. 16 in the American Journal of Public Health.

More information

For more on Medicaid, visit the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

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