Merced County is making some progress in helping inmates get health coverage upon their release so they can continue to receive treatment for mental illness and other problems that often land them back behind bars.
As of last week, the Human Services Agency had received 181 applications from inmates seeking Medi-Cal coverage. Of these, 155 have been approved, five were denied and 21 applications are pending. The application process began Jan. 21.
Through the Affordable Care Act’s expansion of health care coverage, many individuals incarcerated in county jails are eligible to enroll in Medi-Cal.
Corrina Brown, the HSA program manager, said the goal of this prerelease program is to reduce recidivism. A substantial number of individuals that enter county jails have serious medical and behavioral health needs that are never treated.
Although enrolling them in Medi-Cal does not necessarily guarantee services, it does increase the likelihood of these individuals seeking help and medical attention. In the long term this may lessen the number of individuals who cycle in and out of detention centers, reducing the overall burden on county jails, she said.
“A lot of these inmates seem to settle down once they are detained because they are given medicinal care inside the jail, but once they are released they lose this medical care,” Brown said.
“This (inmate) population is a vulnerable population and do not usually trust government agencies,” said added. “By us going to them, we are ensuring that they are getting a benefit that they may otherwise not take advantage of.”
The prerelease inmate program allows a county Family Services representative to visit the inmates one month prior to their release.
The eligibility worker visits each jail, the John Latorraca Correctional Facility and the Main Jail, twice a week. The representative collects the inmates’ information and then sends it to a federal data services hub to verify citizenship and tax information.
Once the Medi-Cal application is approved, it is up to the inmates to follow up and find a health care providers upon their release. The program is voluntary; inmates who do not wish to enroll in coverage do not have to.
Brown said the Medi-Cal application process for inmates is the same as the one used for everyone else. Inmates must meet the same eligibility requirements, including income limits.
Brown explained that although most inmates do not have an income to report, some do indicate an income source with a level that may make them ineligible for Medi-Cal.
HSA Deputy Director Mary Ellen Arana said the prerelease inmate program can be seen as a benefit for the entire community.
“I think this is a positive,” Arana said. “We do a lot of outreach in the community and this is one more effort. I think that if we focus on preventative care, we will have less people in the emergency rooms and in the long run save taxpayers dollars.”