McConnell, Republicans Blast States Putting Inmates on Medicaid Under Obamacare

Saturday, 05 Apr 2014 07:28 PM

By Todd Beamon

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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell slammed news reports that more states are enrolling prison inmates in Medicaid healthcare programs for the poor under expansions initiated by Obamacare.

"Under Obamacare, Kentuckians are already being asked to pay higher premiums, deductibles, and taxes and many were not even allowed to keep healthcare plans they had and liked," the five term GOP senator told Newsmax in a statement Friday. "Now, they are being told that Obamacare will shift taxpayer funds away from the most vulnerable populations, women and children — for whom the Medicaid program was created to assist — and give them to prisoners.

"In Kentucky, there is already a major strain on the system that includes a shortage of physicians accepting Medicaid patients," McConnell added. "That will only increase under this initiative.

"This is yet another disturbing aspect of a profoundly troubling piece of legislation," he said.

Arizona Republican Rep. Paul Gosar told Newsmax that the Affordable Care Act is "just another way for the Obama administration to redistribute income.

"It requires one group of people to pay increased healthcare premiums to subsidize another group of people," Gosar, a dentist, said in a statement. "Now, it appears that these middle-class families, who have seen their premiums skyrocket, are paying for prisoners to enroll in Obamacare.

"Obamacare is a disaster, which must be repealed and replaced with patient-centered, market-based healthcare reform."

Several states — Illinois, Iowa, and Ohio, among them — are taking advantage of an obscure provision in Obamacare that allows them to shift some medical expenses to the federal government, Fox News reports.

Under the regulation, state and county governments can enroll inmates under Medicaid programs that are being expanded to cover single and childless adults. In at least a half dozen of the 26 states and the District of Columbia undergoing Medicaid expansions because of Obamacare, jail operators are extending coverage to inmates, Fox reports.

In essence, the federal government would end up paying some of the more than $6.5 billion in annual state costs for treating prisoners, Bloomberg reports. Inmates would also receive Medicaid coverage when they left prison.

Created in 1965, Medicaid is the federal and state healthcare program for low-income Americans. Obamacare opened the program to individuals making less than 138 percent of the federal poverty level, about $16,000 a year.

Before then, inmates did not qualify for Medicaid — and they most likely could not afford private insurance once they left prison.

“When someone gets discharged from the jail and they don’t have insurance and they don’t have a plan, we can pretty much set our watch to when we’re going see them again,” Ben Breit, a spokesman for the Cook County Sheriff’s Office in Chicago, told Bloomberg.

The county has been operating a pilot project to enroll prisoners in Medicaid since April under a federal waiver, Bloomberg reports. The 96-acre Cook County Jail is the nation's largest single-site jail complex.

The effort was also endorsed earlier this month by the Washington-based National Association of Counties.

"The political element of Obamacare is that we were helping what we called the deserving poor — or what we used to call the deserving poor," Manhattan Institute fellow Avik Roy told Fox News. "A group of people who are just down on their luck … bring them the opportunities they need to get ahead and get back on their feet.

"And sometimes that’s true of people who served time in prison, and sometimes it’s not,” Roy said.

But former Sen. Kent Conrad, a Democrat who represented North Dakota when Obamacare was passed in 2010, said he was troubled by taxpayers covering the health costs of prisoners.

“It starts to look a little like a scheme by the states and local jurisdictions to avoid responsibilities that are really theirs,” said Conrad, who served on the Senate Finance Committee at the time.

He told Bloomberg that he did not recall discussions that Obamacare would be used to cover inmates.

According to data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics cited by Bloomberg, nearly 7 million people in the U.S. were on parole, probation, in prison, or locked up in jail. In addition, about 13 million people are processed into county jails each year, the counties' association reports.

State and local governments generally must provide prisoners with healthcare. Medicaid can be used only when inmates are hospitalized outside of the prison for 24 hours or more.

As such, these entities can pass onto the federal government the costs for such treatments as heart surgery or for a stay in a psychiatric facility, Bloomberg reports.

At the Cook County Jail, for instance, more than 13,000 Medicaid applications have been started since April, Fox reports. After processing, they apply for healthcare with assistance from workers from Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities, a nonprofit group that refers inmates to treatment programs once they leave prison.

Marlena Jentz, a spokeswoman for the Cook County Sheriff’s public policy office, told Fox that more than 2,000 inmates have received Medicaid coverage once they were released.

Meanwhile, prison officials in California and Iowa are considering expanding Medicaid coverage to inmates, Fox reports. Iowa releases about 4,000 prisoners a year.

"We want success," Katrina McKibbin, an administrator for the Iowa Department of Corrections, recently told the Altoona Herald-Index. "We want increased public safety."

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