Pennsylvania joins movement to suspend, not end medical coverage for those behind bars



    Pennsylvania is moving to give some former prisoners quicker access to health care benefits.

    Incarcerated people don’t qualify for medical assistance. Traditionally states have cancelled the benefit when they enter prison. But in recent years, 16 states have changed their regulations so now a prisoner is temporarily suspended from medical assistance instead.

    Now that same change is happening in Pennsylvania, partly lead by state Sen. Pat Vance.

    Four years ago, she heard about a constituent who had just been released from county jail. He struggled with chronic mental illness, and, before he was incarcerated, he’d gotten help through Medicaid.

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    “And it was like 45 days [un]til that could get started back up again, in the interim he robbed people and he ended up back in jail. It really didn’t make any sense to me why we were terminating the benefits instead of suspending them,” Vance said.

    Now that’s the new rule. The change is tucked into the latest Human Services code and part of Pennsylvania’s new spending-plan.

    For prisoners sentenced to under two years, Pennsylvania will put medical assistance eligibility on hold, instead of kicking people out of the program.

    “Twenty-thousand of our inmates are released back into the community in any given year, 37 percent of those individuals have a sentence of two years or less,” said Christopher Oppman, deputy secretary of administration for the state Department of Corrections.

    Thousands more inmates rotate in and out of county jails across the state.

    Oppman says reconnecting former inmates to coverage more quickly could prevent costly delays in health care.

    Earlier this year, Ted Dallas, Secretary of the Department of Human Services said: “Whether you are a Democrat or Republican, I think in the last five or 10 years, folks have come to grips, this is smart policy.”

    Suspending — instead of terminating prisoners — will require a big programming job for the state’s massive IT system, but Dallas expects the job to be complete by November 2016.

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