Bill would lower medical costs for Jackson County Jail

People lodged in the Jackson County Jail while awaiting trial would no longer lose their federally funded health insurance under a bill introduced this week by Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon.

If approved by Congress, the bill could help ease the financial burden Jackson County takes on when inmates lose Medicare, Medicaid and veterans’ benefits. Under current law, the jail is responsible for the cost of inmates’ medical care, including those who have not been convicted of anything.

“This bill would save the county money,” said Jackson County Sheriff Nathan Sickler. “At this point, it’s hard to quantify the amount.”

He said the cost savings for the county could be far larger in the future if voters approve a proposed new jail that would boost capacity from 315 to 800 beds.

“It could save us a lot of money down the road — a huge amount — when we have a bigger facility,” Sickler said.

Having a higher proportion of inmates with health insurance coverage would make it easier for the jail to provide addiction treatment and mental health care, he said.

Treating and stabilizing people would reduce the chances they will commit new crimes in the future, Sickler said.

Merkley’s bill is supported by groups that include the National Sheriff’s Association, National Association of Counties, Disability Rights Oregon, and Oregon Health Authority, which administers the Oregon Health Plan.

Inmates who are lodged for more than a few days lose insurance such as that provided under the Oregon Health Plan, which is funded primarily with federal dollars.

Supporters said keeping insurance in place will help inmates get access to services such as psychiatric medication, as well as medications that ease symptoms of opioid drug withdrawal and curb drug cravings.

“Many people in the justice system need health coverage to help overcome the physical and mental health challenges that led to their confinement,” said Oregon Health Authority Director Patrick Allen. “Breaking the link to health care that Medicaid coverage provides cuts off a vital bridge that helps people who are incarcerated successfully return to the community, which ensures greater well-being for themselves, their families and their neighbors. Sen. Merkley’s bill fixes that problem.”

Inmates who lose their coverage while jailed have to sign up again to receive services, creating an unnecessary bureaucratic hurdle to continue receiving medical care, mental health care and addiction treatment once back in the community, said Shannon Wight, deputy director of Portland-based Partnership for Safety and Justice.

Merkley said the foundation of America’s judicial system is that defendants are innocent until proven guilty. He said inmates awaiting trial shouldn’t lose benefits they rely on to stay healthy.