[The] the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) … may be the biggest piece of prison reform the U.S. will see in this generation.
On the face of it, there’s no direct connection between the ACA and what experts refer to as the “justice-involved population.” There’s no mention of prisons or jails or even crime in the language of the law. However, in what proponents of the act are considering a happy public policy accident, the ACA may inadvertently change the makeup of the U.S. prison population by getting early help to those with mental health and drug abuse issues, ultimately reducing recidivism rates and saving states millions, if not billions, of dollars annually….
The last major study on mental health in prisons, conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, found that 64 percent of inmates in state and federal prisons met the criteria for mental illness at the time of their booking or during the twelve months leading up to their arrest. For comparison, the rate of mental disorders among U.S. citizens stands at around 25 percent, according to the NIH. Sixty-nine percent of the country’s prison population was addicted to drugs or alcohol prior to incarceration….
Health and crime have become inextricable in the U.S. Health issues such as drug addiction and severe mental health disorders directly lead to illegal activities and eventual imprisonment. A high percentage of those incarcerated are guilty of crimes directly related to medical issues, such as illegal drug use or theft to support an addiction.
This population — the poor, homeless, addicted, and mentally ill — has never had any health safety net. With no jobs or income, they are highly unlikely to have private insurance, and Medicaid — the federally-funded health coverage option meant to protect the poorest Americans — is actually only available to a select group of individuals. Though it varies state by state, eligibility is always categorical, which means besides having a low income, Medicaid is only available to five types of people: pregnant women, children below a certain age, parents of Medicaid-eligible children, the disabled, and seniors.
Essentially, Medicaid left out poor, single, male adults without dependant children – the same demographic most likely to end up arrested and incarcerated. Starting in January 2014, however, the categories have been eliminated (at least in the states that have chosen to take the medicaid expansion — it is an optional aspect of the ACA). “That means that a lot of people who are going to jail for mental illness or substance abuse related crimes could potentially avoid jail,” says Marsha Regenstein, a professor of health policy at George Washington University.
Of course, these people are hard to reach, and eligibility doesn’t ensure coverage or healthier behavior. That’s why the bigger opportunity, according to many health and justice policy experts, is to reach and help this population at the points where they do become involved with the justice system….
[T]he right to health care only applies to the length of a person’s sentence…. [A] 2013 report in California, for example, found that 90 percent of prisoners had no health care upon release. Once released, prisoners are likely to discontinue their meds, delay seeing primary care doctors (out of concern for costs), and, as a result, end up in emergency rooms — where high treatment costs are passed on to everyone else via insurance premiums.
This is not just a public health issue; it’s a public safety concern. Lack of care for chronic conditions creates additional long-term problems, like being physically or mentally unfit for employment. In conjunction with a lack of appropriate care for their drug problems and an inability to effectively medicate their mental health disorders, the formerly incarcerated are likely to return to a life of crime.
Many hope and believe that change is on its way. The Justice Department estimates suggest that with the expansion of Medicaid, 5.4 million ex-offenders currently on parole or probation could get the health care they need. (It’s important to note that 25 states plus Washington, D.C. have implemented the Medicaid expansion as of 2014. However, many policy experts expect the remaining states to fall in line, citing the historical example of how CHIP was initially rejected by many states when it rolled out in 1997, but is now utilized in every state in the country.)
Even with coverage, those ex-offenders will still need to actually utilize those health, and the key will be making the connection at the time of release. The biggest challenge will be getting state justice systems and health systems — not exactly happy bedfellows in past years — to work together to create coordinated discharge planning between jails and community healthcare….
The cost savings associated with keeping former prisoners out of the ER and out of prisons will likely lead leadership at the highest levels — state governors, for example — to push for the types of collaboration that will keep ex-offenders healthy and out of trouble….
Ultimately, because there is no precise directive in the ACA, the choice on how to handle these issues will be made independently in every state, and in every county. In some cases, reform will be swift; in others, life may go on as though Obamacare never happened.