Jail work to reduce inmate health costs

How good is medical care for county jail inmates?

Opinions vary somewhat from county to county, but one thing is clear: A 1976 U.S. Supreme Court ruling requires them to provide a level of care few inmates get while they are out on the streets.

At a recent budget hearing in Trumbull County, Sheriff Thomas Altiere and Chief Deputy Ernie Cook said the cost of medical care for about 350 jail inmates is $350,000 to $450,000 per year. They cited some recent examples of extraordinary costs being paid by taxpayers:

• In 2004, an inmate got into a fight in the jail that resulted in his ear’s being severed. He was eventually taken to a Pittsburgh hospital, where doctors reattached the ear and kept him for seven days at a cost of around $110,000. In addition, the county also had to provide his transportation and 24-hour deputy supervision, which added thousands more.

• A current inmate who is awaiting trial on a murder charge will need facial reconstruction surgery because of a self-inflicted gunshot wound that occurred on the day he is accused of killing another man. Officials say he will need multiple surgeries at around $30,000 each, and the county may have to pick up the tab.

Other counties have had similar situations.

Local costs

Robert Knight, longtime health administrator for the Mahoning County Justice Center, said Mahoning County’s inmate health-care costs have been between $1.5 million and $1.8 million in the past three years, with inmate numbers fluctuating. As of Dec. 28, the jail housed about 470 inmates.

Columbiana County Commissioner Jim Hoppel said his county’s health cost is about $260,000 per year for 170 inmates in the county lockup. He said the biggest increase in that amount has come from prescriptions, which make up about half of the bill. Though the county has a contract with CiviGenics to run the jail, the county still pays for medical care.

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