Editorial: Merkley’s bill the right way to go

There are two good reasons to support efforts by Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, to keep federal health care benefits flowing to those who have been jailed and are awaiting trial. For one thing, those men and women are, like the rest of us, innocent until proven guilty of the crimes with which they’re charged. Too, when federal health benefits are cut off, services can be disrupted and local taxpayers must foot the bill for services provided.

Merkley’s Restoring Health Benefits for Justice-Involved Individuals Act, introduced earlier in October, would change that. It would prevent federal providers, including Medicaid, Medicare, the Children’s Health Insurance Program and Veterans Administration health care services, from cutting off benefits for individuals being held in jail until trial.

Some 60% of men and women being held in county jails nationwide are there because they were unable to post bail. By comparison, on Thursday, Oct. 24, 63% of the nearly 300 men and women in the Deschutes County jail were there awaiting trial, some of whom were unable to make bail, says Capt. Mike Shults of the Deschutes County Sheriff’s Department. Meanwhile, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, more than half of those being held in jail or prison suffer from some mental illness, and a fair number have other health issues, as well.

The federal government is remarkably swift at dropping jailed men and women from federal programs and the burden that puts on jail budgets is real. The Deschutes County jail paid more than $200,000 in uncovered medical expenses during the most recent fiscal year that ended June 30. Still, that figure is far smaller than it might be because several providers, including St. Charles Health System, billed at full rate but actually agreed to collect only what would have been paid by the Oregon Health Plan. That amounted to a 61% reduction in cost to the county.

Money aside, the price paid by those being held for trial is also huge. Many are fighting addiction and other mental illness, and without continuing treatment they’re far more likely to lose the fight. And jails are not always able to track down and duplicate treatment plans for those with chronic health issues.

Merkley’s bill would change that. The result would certainly be better treatment for many of those being held in jail, and, perhaps, a better life after jail.