Temporary Covid-era suspensions being rolled back
Shortly before the emergence of COVID-19, the California prison system ended its long-held practice of charging prisoners a $5 copay for medical appointments.
But according to a February 2022 report by the Prison Policy Initiative, four out of five states and the federal government have held onto this practice.
According to the report, “unaffordable copays in prisons and jails have two inevitable and dangerous consequences.”
First, because of the high rates, the sick avoid the doctors and spread illness to those around them, and disease can reach outside communities either when they are released or through prison staff.
Second, untreated illnesses are likely to get worse, not better, increasing the cost of care, as they require more aggressive treatments in the long run.
The report states that, “medical copays encourage a dangerous waiting game for incarcerated people, correctional agencies, and the public, with little payoff in terms of offsetting medical costs and reducing ‘unnecessary’ office visits.”
Copays vary across the country but they typically range from $2 to $5. Texas once charged prisoners an annual $100 health care fee; now they charge $13.55 per visit.
According to the Prison Policy Initiative, these copays are unaffordable compared to prisoners’ abysmal earnings. Most prisoners’ wages range from 14 to 63 cents per hour. A $5 copay is like someone who is not incarcerated paying up to $500 for a doctor’s appointment, the story said.
Because of the corona virus crisis, most states temporarily modified their copay policies. During the pandemic, 10 states suspended copays entirely. However, the majority only suspended charges for a narrow range of symptoms related to COVID, influenza, or respiratory illness.
Coronavirus hospitalizations and deaths continue to rise across the country and some prisons, including San Quentin, continue to experience outbreaks and lockdowns. Some states are slowing their reporting of prison COVID data and are reinstating pre-pandemic copay policies, the story said.
The report concluded that “copays never make sense behind bars, particularly during a highly contagious viral pandemic. They are cruel, counterintuitive, and disincentivize people from seeking medical care when they need it.”