Health Care Costs for NJ Prisoners Reach High Levels

By Christie Duffy

Billions of dollars are spent nationally every year on health care for prisoners — hospitalizations, prescription pills, mental health and substance abuse treatment.

In most states, prison health care costs peaked in 2011. Spending reached nearly $8 billion.

By federal law, prisoners’ Medicare and Medicaid are suspended when they become incarcerated. And many often lose their private insurance.

The New Jersey Department of Corrections assumes full responsibility for inmate health care payments, meaning your tax dollars are at work. So how much are you paying?

Research by The Pew Charitable Trusts says on average New Jersey prisoners rack up just over $5,800 annually in health care costs, during the years they analyzed.

“Oh that is a lot of money. That is too much,” said Ricardo Lopez of Union City.

“I thought it would be even more,” said Jersey City resident Virginia Jackson.

“New Jersey is just about in the middle of the pack of 50 states in its spending per inmate,” said Maria Schiff, director of the State Health Care Spending Project for The Pew Charitable Trusts.

New Jersey’s costs have stayed relatively steady over the five years analyzed. But Schiff says elsewhere they’ve been growing.

“The prison costs for states and the health care costs for states have been among the two fastest rising areas of expenses over the last few years,” Schiff said.

A big factor that Schiff says has kept New Jersey’s costs static is a decline in inmate population. And, New Jersey law requires inmates be responsible for some of their own medical costs.

The Department of Corrections says New Jersey inmates are cared for by Rutgers University, through their correctional health care program. Where DOC says doctors and nurses provide all the same essential services that you or I can get on the outside.

Schiff says Rutgers has had a lot of success in keeping Garden State prisoners healthy.

“In controlling prisoners’ blood pressure, and AIDS viral load and other indicators that are very important indications of value that the state of New Jersey is getting for its correctional health care dollars,” said Schiff.

But Schiff says lower spending doesn’t always mean more efficiency and higher spending doesn’t always mean more waste.

“In other words, we don’t know if the prisoners in a state that spends quite a bit, whether those prisoners have better health,” Schiff said.

As far as where costs are headed, Schiff warns that New Jersey’s prison population is among the youngest in the nation. But the number of inmates 55 and up ballooned by 40 percent from 2007 to 2011.

If that trend continues, Schiff warns, our costs for prisoner health care could grow with it.