There are two bills in the U.S. Senate that Harvey County Commissioner Chip Westfall — and the National Association of Counties — are watching that could be helpful not only to people arrested and sitting in the county jail waiting for court, but to the counties as well.
“I think this would help our jail budget quite a bit,” Westfall said.
According to Sen. Edward J. Markely, D-Mass., the Medicaid Inmate Exclusion Policy strips federal health benefits from individuals in jail before they are convicted of a crime — a violation of constitutional rights.
“The foundation of our judicial system is innocence until proven guilty,” Markley said. “It doesn’t make sense that Americans awaiting trial — half of whom have serious health conditions — are cut off from Medicaid, Medicare, and veterans’ benefits that they rely on to stay healthy, just because they are unable to pay bail. It’s time for Congress to stand up for these Americans, by making sure they continue to receive the health coverage and treatment they need and qualify for.”
Commissioner Randy Hague agreed.
“I think what is behind this is people are innocent until proven guilty,” Hague said. “To deny these benefits to someone who is possibly innocent is just not right.”
According to NACo, 106 million people were admitted to jail in 2017, and 67% of jail population is unconvicted. The association estimates 2 million people with serious mental illness are booked into local jails each year.
Markey; Jeff Merkley, D-Ore.; Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio; and Dick Durbin, D-Ill., introduced legislation in October that would protect continuity of Medicaid coverage for pretrial detainees, ensuring health care services are provided to an individual who is in custody pending disposition of charges. Currently, individuals who have been arrested and are able to post bail maintain Medicaid coverage, while those who remain in custody can lose it despite not having been convicted of the crime for which they have been charged. The result leads to a gap in coverage for pretrial detainees who are in the greatest need of care, increased bureaucratic government red tape as individuals are released and must reactivate their Medicaid coverage, and an unpredictable budgetary burden for sheriffs and local counties who are forced to pay the medical bills.
NACo has asked counties across the nation to support the two bills.
The first, S-2626, called the restoring Health benefits for Justice-Involved Individuals Act, would allow for continued access to Medicare, the Children's Health Insurance Program and veteran's health benefits while an individual is awaiting trial. The second, S-2628, called the Equity in Pretrial Medicaid Coverage Act, supports continued access to Medicaid benefits while an individual is awaiting trial.
The Harvey County Commission directed staff to create letters of support for both bills. Once approved, those letters would be sent to the senators and representatives who represent Kansas in Washington, D.C.
Westfall also is concerned about veterans' benefits.
"When you come out of jail, your VA benefits do not start immediately. You have to go to the VA, reapply to be reinstated and they do not back up to your release date," Westfall said. "There is a gap there."
Organizations supporting the legislation include the National Sheriffs’ Association, National Association of Counties, Major County Sheriffs of America, National Council for Behavioral Health, Infectious Diseases Society of America, HIV Medicine Association, Massachusetts Sheriffs’ Association, FamiliesUSA and Center for Law and Social Policy.