Despite an increased jail population, health care costs for inmates at the Calhoun County Jail have decreased by more than 50 percent in the last five years, said Faye Robertson, Calhoun County’s assistant administrator.
“This is one of the best things the County Commission has ever done,” Robertson said. “The way we’ve cut down the medical costs at the county jail has saved us a lot of money.”
In the fiscal year 2009, the commission allocated $545,710 for jail medical costs and spent $481,074. Last year, the budget was $371,973 while the total costs were just $218,990.
So how are they reducing costs so dramatically?
A full-time nurse practitioner on the staff has helped reduce much of the mounting cost of hiring additional doctors, Robertson said. In 2009, jail staff member Brent Cobb became licensed to handle most of the daily medical needs of the inmate population.
And while the commission is proud of the reduced numbers, Calhoun County Sheriff Larry Amerson said last week he had no idea what the county allocated annually for inmate health care. He just knows the Sheriff’s Office has never come close to exceeding it.
“In 18 years we’ve never not been able to get someone treatment they need,” he said. “These costs aren’t coming out of my pocket. There’s no reason for the Sheriff’s Office not to get inmates the medical treatment they need.”
Questions about medical procedures at the Calhoun County Jail arose recently after an inmate collapsed while testifying in District Court. The man had a seizure on the witness stand and first responders rushed him to Regional Medical Center.
The man’s mother told The Star she believed jail staff weren’t providing her son with daily medication he needed to prevent seizures, but Amerson said the problem had nothing to do with withholding the man’s medication. The inmate was refusing to take it, he said.
“Like any person in the free world, just because you’re in jail, we can’t force you to take medicine,” Amerson said. “They’re entitled to the medicine they need, but if they refuse to take it, they refuse to take it.”
Like every inmate in the jail, the man’s medical history is documented by the Sheriff’s Office. Medical staff, led by Cobb, can pull up these records, with photo identification, to make sure patients are receiving all the treatments the Sheriff’s Office is obligated to provide.
Cobb said inmates’ medical needs run the gamut from mild to severe, and over the years he’s had to deal with just about everything.
“Anything you see in the outside world, we’ve had in here,” Cobb said. “HIV, diabetics, cancer patients, we even had a pregnant woman once.”
Inmates’ health problems can be complicated by lifestyle issues, Cobb said. In many cases it might have been years since the last time they received any type of medical treatment at all.
“A lot of our customers or clients aren’t taking care of themselves,” Cobb said. “Sometimes just finding a medical history can be difficult.”
Cobb is trained to handle most medical needs for inmates, but occasionally specialists are required to come in, Amerson said.
Besides Cobb, the other big help in saving money has been a county-hired court liaison who works with county judges to find alternatives to get inmates with high medical costs out of the county jail, Robertson said.
Of course there isn’t always an alternative, and inmates who are in jail are still entitled to medical treatment, she said — as long as the patients want to be treated.
“Just like a hospital, or anywhere else, our patients have rights and responsibilities,” Cobb said. “They have the right to medication, but it’s their responsibility to take that medication.”
Staff writer Brian Anderson: 256-235-3546. On Twitter @BAnderson_Star.