Minn. Taxpayers Covering Rising Prisoner Health Care Costs

Updated: 04/30/2013 10:14 PM KSTP.com By: Stephen Tellier

Last fiscal year, Minnesota spent more than $65 million taking care of criminals, and the cost of health care for those behind bars continues to climb.

More than 9,000 inmates live in Minnesota's 11 prisons. They're locked up, and in many cases, their bodies are breaking down.
"There are issues like diabetes. There are issues of cancer.  There are issues of dementia," said Terry Carlson, deputy commissioner of the institutions division for the Minnesota Department of Corrections.
And those issues are multiplying as the average inmate gets older and older.
"It's just because of sentences being longer, people staying in prison longer," Carlson said.
The percentage of inmates over the age of 50 has climbed slowly but steadily over the past decade, reaching about 14 percent of the total population this year. That has pushed the annual cost of health care per inmate way up. In 2000, the state spent about $3,500 per year per inmate. By the last fiscal year, it had jumped to more than $7,000 per year per inmate.
And that tab is picked up by the taxpayer.
Part of the problem is that the state is constitutionally obligated to provide adequate health care to all of its inmates. So the DOC says all it can really do is find creative ways to try to control costs.
"We want to have the most cost-efficient and effective health care in our correctional systems as possible," Carlson said.
Carlson said the DOC has increased the number of beds for prisoners who need around the clock care, and for older inmates dealing with dementia and mobility issues. It has also brought certain services in-house, like dialysis and mammograms, so inmates don't have to leave prison to get care.
"It increases public safety and it's more cost effective for us," Carlson said.
But Carlson said the DOC has to work within the same expensive health care system that many of us are a part of as well.
"We can't control the costs of the health care providers," Carlson said.
The state is also looking at ways to bring down the prices they pay for the most expensive services, like hospitalization. Right now, the DOC can't pay the lower, Medicaid rate for inmates who have to be hospitalized. Health care providers often force the state to pay more -- sometimes double the Medicaid rate.
The total cost of health care in Minnesota's prisons also includes mental health services, and treatment for sex offenders and chemical dependency.