Friday, May 8, 2009

Prisons seek medical cost savings

Hoping to combat rising medical costs, Illinois prison officials have quietly begun investigating a new way to treat inmates.

A review of state documents shows that Illinois Department of Corrections Director Roger Walker met late last year with a top doctor from the Texas prison system. The subject of their Dec. 11 meeting at corrections headquarters in Springfield was telemedicine, in which inmates receive medical advice from a doctor linked to the prison via video conferencing equipment.

The concept, already in use in Texas, California and elsewhere, is drawing a cautious response from the state’s largest public employee union, which represents correctional officers, nurses and other workers within the sprawling state prison system.

“We don’t know what they might be looking at. At face value we don’t believe telemedicine in a prison setting is a good idea,” said Anders Lindall, spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union.

Prison officials say the idea could result in some savings to taxpayers.

“That is another avenue we are looking at to combat the rising medical expenses,” said corrections spokesman Derek Schnapp.

The projected savings could come by avoiding the expense of transporting an injured or ill inmate to an outside medical facility.

At their meeting, Walker met with Dr. Owen Murray of the University of Texas Medical Board, which oversees prison medical services in the Lone Star State. Schnapp said the two discussed ways of saving money through video consultations.

Murray, an Illinois native, oversees the medical, mental health and dental services for more than 120,000 offenders within the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Illinois’ prison system contains about 45,500 inmates.

It isn’t clear how much Texas saves by using telemedicine. Murray could not be reached for comment.

A survey by the U.S. Department of Justice found Illinois spent about $73 million on medical costs in 2001. That translates into about $1,605 per inmate each year.

Eight years later, Illinois officials report that the cost of health care at state prisons has risen more than 60 percent to $118 million overall, or about $2,593 per inmate.

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