Sheriff cuts back paying medical bills of prisoners

Monday, February 27, 2006

In a move to save county tax dollars, the Cape Girardeau County Sheriff's Department will no longer pick up the tab for a prisoner's hospital costs.

For years, the department has paid prisoner hospital bills, said Sheriff John Jordan. Between the two Cape Girardeau hospitals, last year's bills totaled more than $21,000.

In prior years, the sheriff's office was faced with hospital bills of nearly $40,000. That was before the county employed a full-time health-care provider, Advanced Correction Healthcare, to administer medical services inside the jail.

Jordan said having the readily available medical staff at the jail cuts down on unnecessary hospital and emergency room visits and saves the county money. But it's when the prisoners are taken to outside providers that the sheriff's department bears the higher costs.

"The inmates have very good health care inside the jail," Jordan said. "But this burden of picking up outside medical costs has continued to grow over the years."

This past January, the sheriff's department paid close to $2,000 in hospital services.

Jordan said he made the decision to quit paying the prisoners' bills after consulting with the Missouri Sheriff's Association and reviewing state statutes.

"In the same sense a taxi driver that drops off a patient at an emergency room is not held responsible for the medical expenses incurred by his client, the same is true for the sheriff's office," Jordan said. "For years we have been a taxi service for prisoners and yet we have been presented with the bill for the medical expenses."

Cape Girardeau County Presiding Commissioner Gerald Jones said the reason prisoners' hospital bills were paid by the sheriff's department was because once a person is sentenced to jail, the prisoner becomes a ward of the county. The county is responsible for certain expenses of caring for prisoners in jail, including offering proper medical attention.

But Jordan said Missouri's revised statutes clearly state the prisoner is responsible for payment of hospital bills.

The county commission can authorize payment of certain medical costs that the commission determines to be necessary and reasonable, said Jordan.

By implementing this new policy, the savings will be more than $34,000 in premiums alone, Jordan said. The county would have picked up close to half of those costs.

"I would see this as a positive impact on Cape County," Jordan said. "The taxpayers pay their fair share."

Last year the county jail exceeded its $200,000 prisoner medical aid budget by more than $29,000. This year $220,000 is budgeted for medical aid in the Cape Girardeau County Jail.

"Our prisoner medical expenses have gone through the roof," Jones said. "This new policy change will save some tax dollars and that's the main issue."

The sheriff's office issued letters to both Southeast Missouri Hospital and Saint Francis Medical Center to announce the change.

"I'm not sure if the hospitals will be very happy about this change but it's certainly going to be a savings to the taxpayers," Jordan said. "It's been a law on the books and we've been wanting to change it for some time now."

Anywhere from 140 to 200 inmates are housed in the Cape Girardeau County Jail on any given day.

If an inmate is injured while incarcerated and the sheriff's department believes it is responsible for the injury, the sheriff may opt to approve payment of the medical services.

jfreeze@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 246

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