Area jails coping with MDOC fee reductions

Published 6:00 am Friday, February 25, 2005

Area sheriffs say they aren’t feeling the pinch of risingmedical costs as much as some others following cost-cutting movesby the Mississippi Department of Corrections.

The Legislature enacted a law last year that prevents MDOC frompaying county jails that house state inmates any more for medicalbills than what is covered for Medicaid recipients.

The measure has drawn the ire of several county governments,some of which have said they may have to raise local taxes tocompensate for rising jail medical bills.

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The medical bills of state inmates housed in county jails havetraditionally been paid by the county jail with reimbursement fromMDOC.

In June, Corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps mailedsheriffs a letter announcing that MDOC would no longer reimbursemore than the standard Medicaid rate for state inmate medicalbills.

Despite the outcry of many sheriffs statewide, however, areasheriffs say they have not seen the skyrocketing medical expensesothers are claiming. They also say it may be too early to know themeasure’s full impact.

“Everything is working fine with us,” said Pike County SheriffMark Sheppard. “I don’t think it’s happened over a long enough timefor us to analyze those figures.”

Sheppard and Copiah County Jail Administrator Jim Harper saidthey are keeping inmate medical costs down through the use offull-time nurses at their jails.

Sheppard, who took office in January 2004, said Pike County hashad a nurse on staff since before he won the election. The nursechecks on the inmates, provides medicine and determines wheninmates need to receive more advanced care, eliminating hospitalvisits for minor illnesses or injuries.

The Copiah County Jail hired a full-time nurse around November,Harper said. He said the nurse was hired partly as a cost-cuttingmeasure because of the MDOC announcement.

“We’ve really cut our medical expenses down since we’ve donethat,” he said. “We’re already noticing the savings. It’s been abig savings for us.”

The nurse determines when an inmate needs to visit the hospitalnow, Harper said. Previously, a jailer had to make thatdecision.

“It makes a difference when the decision-maker has a medicalbackground,” he said.

Jailers previously were be concerned about the potential oflawsuits when denying inmates advanced medical care, Harper said. Anurse has a better background to make those determinations based onprofessional knowledge, he said.

Lawrence County Sheriff Joel Thames said he has not noticed alarge increase in medical expenses at the jail but is neverthelesslooking for ways to cut costs.

“I’ve been exploring the idea of getting a nurse practitioner tocome in once a week for a sick call,” he said.

Thames said the local hospital has been very cooperative inhelping the jail keep medical costs down.

“The hospital does give us a discount on our emergency roomvisits. That helps some,” he said.

Sheppard and Harper also said their local hospitals haddemonstrated a willingness to work with the jails on keeping themedical expense budget down.