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Ex-Felons Are About to Get Health Coverage
By Michael Ollove, Staff Writer
April 5, 2013
Newly freed prisoners traditionally walk away from the penitentiary with a bus ticket and a few dollars in their pockets. Starting in January, many of the 650,000 inmates released from prison each year will be eligible for something else: health care by way of Medicaid, thanks to the Affordable Care Act.
A sizeable portion of the nearly 5 million ex-offenders who are on parole or probation at any given time will also be covered.
The expansion of Medicaid, a key provision of the health care reform law, is the main vehicle for delivering health insurance to former prisoners.
Researchers and those who advocate on behalf of ex-convicts hail the change as monumental, saying it will help address the generally poor health of ex-offenders, reduce medical costs and possibly keep them from sliding back into crime.
“It potentially revolutionizes the criminal justice system and health system,” said Faye Taxman, a health services criminologist at George Mason University. “We now have a golden opportunity to develop and implement quality interventions to both improve health outcomes for this population and also reduce the rate of criminal activity.”
Medicaid is the federal-state health insurance partnership for the poor. Under federal law, states must provide Medicaid to children, pregnant women and disabled adults who fall below certain income thresholds. The states are not now required to extend Medicaid to adults under 65 who are not pregnant or disabled. A small minority of states does so; most states do not.
Since most recently released prisoners are not pregnant or disabled, the vast majority of them do not have Medicaid or health insurance of any kind. As a result, studies show, many do not receive treatment for chronic conditions or continue on medications prescribed in prison. They also do not generally see primary care doctors, relying instead on emergency rooms, an expensive way of delivering medical care.
The ACA could change that. Beginning in January, states that agree to the Medicaid expansion will be required to provide Medicaid to all non-elderly low-income adults. For the first time, many of the 5 million ex-offenders on parole or probation will be eligible for the assistance. It applies to those released from either state or federal prisons. The exceptions will be former prisoners living in those states that currently have limited Medicaid eligibility for adults and that ultimately opt out of the Medicaid expansion, a choice accorded the states in the U.S. Supreme Court’s ACA ruling last June.
Ex-cons with jobs who make too much money to be eligible for Medicaid could still qualify for federal tax credits to purchase health insurance through the new state exchanges. Under the ACA, like everyone else, they will be required to have health insurance of some kind starting next January.