Elderly, sick inmates costing taxpayers thousands in medical care

I-Team

A lot of inmates in Massachusetts are sick and aging and the 22News I-Team discovered, taxpayers are fronting the cost of their medical bills.

The I-Team got an eye-opening look into the state’s prison population, which is considered one of the oldest in the country.

It’s one of the reasons why prison spending in Massachusetts is still on the rise, even though the prison population has decreased in recent years.

According to documents the I-Team obtained from the Department of Corrections, 1,600 inmates in Massachusetts are 55 or older; the oldest inmate is a 95-year-old man.

According to the National Institute of Corrections,  inmates who are at least 55-years-old and have chronic and terminal illnesses cost an average of two to three times more than other inmates.

Jason Dobson, a spokesperson for the Dept. of Corrections told the I-Team, 31 inmates in Massachusetts require full care. That means some of them to need help with daily tasks, such as getting dressed and eating.

Those 31 inmates suffer from chronic diseases such as cancer, liver disease, cardiac issues, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and diabetes.

The state is responsible for their medical costs while they’re incarcerated, and for 20 of the 31 inmates who require full care, that’ll likely be until they die, as they’re serving life sentences.

The I-Team went to the State House in Boston to see what your lawmakers are doing to bring down costs.

Cambridge State Senator Pat Jehlen helped write a compassionate release provision in the state’s criminal justice law, which allows inmates to apply for compassionate release if they’re physically or cognitively incapacitated. “I can’t understand what the value to society is about keeping people locked up who are permanently incapacitated and about to die,” Senator Jehlen said.

According to the compassionate release provision, inmates must be permanently incapacitated or have less than 18-months to live to qualify. The DOC then has to recommend their application to the parole board, who will make the final decision.

Senator Jehlen told the I-Team if they’re granted compassionate release, the idea is to have them spend their final days in a nursing home, at a medical facility or at home, where their medical costs will be covered by Medicaid or private insurance. “We get 50% federal reimbursement if the person is not incarcerated. Then they go to an outside nursing home and we save half the cost on medical care, as well as the cost incarceration.”

The state doesn’t track healthcare costs for individual inmates at state prisons, but according to state records from 2016, it cost taxpayers $283,000 a year to pay for one inmate at Shattuck Hospital Correctional Unit in Shirley, which is also known as the state’s prison hospital.

State prisons aren’t the only ones that have seen an increase in spending despite a reduction in inmates, county jails have also noticed the trend.

Hampden County Sheriff Nick Cocchi told the I-Team, the Hampden County Jail in Ludlow has seen an increase in medical costs from inmates suffering from substance use disorder. “In fiscal year 18, the most recent fiscal year, it cost the jail $6,700 per inmate for healthcare costs.”

Sheriff Cocchi said total medical costs at the jail were $8,395,668 in FY 18, compared to $7,851,000 in FY 17, even though they had 214 fewer daily inmates. 

85% of the inmates at the Hampden County Jail suffer from substance use disorder or other serious health conditions. “We have a very acute population of very seriously ill people that are coming to our custody. It’s taking a lot of resources to get them the health care that they need,” Sheriff Cocchi said.

The Hampden County jail tries to offset costs by making sure they’re getting the most affordable prescriptions possible. 

As for state prisons, a compassionate release may be an option for some of the state’s sickest inmates, but it’s still unclear whether any nursing homes would be willing to take them in.

Sheriff Cocchi said the DOC and parole board need to examine each case carefully, before making a decision. “You always have to remember with a compassionate release, you’re still dealing with an individual who, if they’ve been incarcerated for that amount of time and still have that amount of time over their head, they’ve left some victims in the community. So when you talk about compassionate release, it  really has to be for the betterment of the individual and you have to balance that with the community.”

So far, no inmates in Massachusetts have been granted compassionate release.

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