OHIO Prisons to request health care funds

The state needs funding to cover a shortfall in prison medical facilities.
COLUMBUS (AP) -- Prison officials plan to ask a state board today for an emergency 16 percent increase in the budget for inmate health care, saying increased costs led to a $22 million shortfall.
The increase would boost the system's overall health care budget to about $140 million for the year.
The request comes a year after a report said Ohio's prisons should hire more doctors and nurses and expand some medical facilities to raise standards of care for inmates.
The request to the seven-member State Controlling Board would cover increased costs in a contract with Ohio State University for medical care, along with increased costs of drugs, including those used to treat hepatitis C, a potentially fatal viral liver disease.
The prisons department will absorb about $2 million of the shortfall but needs permission to transfer about $20 million from other areas, said Terry Collins, acting assistant director of the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.
Those include prison programs to treat addictions as well as parole services.
Collins said the funding request was not related to the review of prison medical care. Gov. Bob Taft requested the review in August 2003 after the Columbus Dispatch and Columbus television station WBNS found a pattern of inadequate care, wrongful deaths and dubious doctors in 33 state prisons.
But the lawyer who brought a federal class-action lawsuit over the state's system of inmate care says it's clearly connected.
"There are substantial medical needs that have not been met by the prison system and we will have substantial reforms on the table in the future," said Alphonse Gerhardstein, president of the Prison Reform Advocacy Center and a Cincinnati lawyer.
"In the broadest sense, these are all related," Gerhardstein said. Today's request "is the first installment in an ongoing effort to deliver constitutionally adequate care to prisoners."
Budget problems
The shortfall also illustrates the budget problems plaguing Ohio prisons, said Lee Evans, state director of SEIU District 1199, the union representing about 1,000 prison workers, including hundreds of nurses.
Taft ordered the closing of a Lima prison two years ago to save about $25 million annually to balance the budget.
After limiting increases to the prison system during the current two-year budget, Taft announced new cuts in March 2004 to cover another shortfall.
If the prisons "were adequately funded by the Legislature to begin with, they wouldn't have to be shifting money around," Evans said. "If you're going to incarcerate people, you need to provide them with adequate health care."
Lawmakers know the prisons have been cut but must look at all agencies when trying to balance the next budget, said Senate Finance Chairman John Carey, a Republican from Wellston in southern Ohio.
Carey, a controlling board member, didn't anticipate problems with today's $20 million request.
Hepatitis C
The national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have identified the infection of inmates with hepatitis C as a growing national problem.
The latest Ohio prison figures show that 3,299 inmates are infected with hepatitis C, or 8 percent of the total 43,982 population.
Two years ago, the figure was about 6 percent.
Collins said the prison system is aging and new inmates are also older, leading to additional health care costs.
"We're constantly and continually reviewing our medical delivery system to make sure we're trying to do best job we can," Collins said. "And understanding every time you touch something in medical, you're talking dollars."

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