For the first time ever, prisoners will be able to enroll in Medicaid and receive the federal health benefits prior to their release from prison or jail.
The announcement of the change was made by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services on Jan. 26, according to media reports. Previously, federal law prohibited Medicaid money from being spent on people in custody.
The new exemption rule will allow incarcerated people — first in California and then in other states — to enroll and begin accessing limited benefits such as mental health services and drug addiction treatments up to 90 days before their release.
The aim is to smooth their transition back into society with less disruption of essential medical services, explained Medicaid administrator Chiquita Brooks-LaSure. She noted that the new rule will “make unprecedented advancements in health care for incarcerated individuals, who have long been underserved.”
California could serve as a model for other states to follow as Medicaid embarks on this major new effort for the first time. At least 10 other states have since applied for the same exemption under the new rule, The Associated Press reported.
Officials in California announced that their goal is to have such benefits available for incarcerated people in the state starting in 2024, according to the AP.
The first step will be to assess the Medicaid eligibility of all people incarcerated in the state. Those who are eligible will have a “care plan for reentry” developed for them, said the article.
The state’s Medicaid director, Jacey Cooper, said this process could take at least two years to complete for all California prisons.
California releases roughly 500,000 people from its prisons and jails every year, and of these, an estimated 80% meet the qualifications for Medicaid, the AP article stated.
Reentry proponents note the positive effects of the new rule will extend beyond health care to provide greater stability for the formerly incarcerated.
“Right now, there is an enormous barrier to care when people leave prison and jail,” said Vikki Wachino of the Health and Reentry Project at the Commonwealth Fund. “As you know, many times when they’re released, they’ve been left to fend for themselves, with very, very few supports.”