California spending $14,000 annually for prisoner health care, Texas pays only $3,650

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While the state of California spends an average of $14,000 per year on health care for its 170,000 prisoners, millions of ordinary citizens and taxpayers have no coverage at all. “I’m not happy about the fact that our incarcerated inmates are getting better health care than people who aren’t incarcerated,” says state Assemblywoman Alyson Huber.

So it goes with the federally-mandated receivership under which the California prison health system has operated since 2006. The state has no voice in how billions in taxpayer dollars are spent each year, and watches helplessly as the figure sharply rises each year, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times.

Four years ago, a federal judge ordered the prison’s health care system to be supervised by receiver J. Clark Kelso, after the court ruled that the state had not done enough to improve the system since 2000, and that prison conditions violated the U.S. Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

In 2006, federal authorities claimed there were 48 “possibly preventable” deaths in California prisons, and 18 that were “likely preventable.” Kelso said that under his oversight, that number has fallen to 3.

Thanks to the federal oversight, California’s 33 prisons now employ one doctor for every 435 inmates, as compared to one for every 2,000 in Texas, a state in which its prisons were at one time supervised by a federal receiver. Texas, the only state that has a prison system comparable to California’s, spends only $3,650 per prisoner annually on health care services.

Besides the ongoing cost of providing health care, dental and mental health care, the state has spent about $82 million since 2007 on plans, environmental reviews, and blueprints for seven new medical facilities, which did not materialize. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger abandoned those plans for a smaller single facility in Stockton that contains 1,700 beds, and ordered several former juvenile prisons retrofitted to be used as medical facilities.

According to a report from the Assembly Committee on Accountability and Administrative Review, since the creation of the federal receivership in 2006, the cost of providing prison health care jumped 83 percent in just 4 years, from $1.2 billion to $2.2 billion.

As part of the state’s budget deficit reduction plan, last year Kelso agreed to an $820 million cut to inmate medical services for the fiscal year 2010-2011. So far, according to the Assembly report, only $94 million in cuts have been identified.

Kelso told state legislators that the quickest was to reduce costs of operating the prison health care system is to release the sickest patients, largely responsible for a disproportionate amount of medical expenses. “You let me unload 1,500 inmates, and I’ll give you a 30% drop in costs,” he said.

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