County Jail Health Care Needs on the Rise

Jan 4, 2012

Health care costs for Allegheny County Jail inmates are relatively low, according to a leader of the county's Allegheny Correctional Health Service (ACHS), but the jail is facing a large increase in the number of inmates who need health care.

ACHS Chief Operating Officer Dana Phillips told the county's Board of Health that her agency spent $12 million in taxpayer money last year on health care for a jail population that usually hovered around 2,000 people.

"Each of those inmates is getting a zero-deductible, full-ride health care insurance policy for less than we can buy one for our employees or the county employees," said Phillips. "So, from a cost-effectiveness perspective, it's pretty good."

But Phillips said that the jail is facing several health care challenges, including high numbers of inmates with mental health issues or substance abuse problems. She said that more and more inmates need health care.

"We had a 47 percent increase in infirmary bed days in 2011 over 2010, despite the fact that the census dropped almost 200 people," said Phillips. "Our acute and step-down mental health units are consistently filled. Our mental health sick call requests are up."

Phillips noted the jail's lack of a permanent warden as a big problem. The jail has been working under interim wardens since December of 2010 when Ramon Rustin left the post to take a job in New Mexico.

Phillips said that it's also been hard to accomodate more patients without more therapy rooms.

But Phillips drew a stark line in the quality of care before and after the advent of her agency in 2000. She said that inmates with stable mental health issues are no longer segregated, initial health screenings have been improved, dental and eye care has been introduced, and treatment of drug and alcohol addiction has been expanded.

The jail is also in the process of digitizing its medical records, said Phillips.

In all, she said that health services at the Allegheny County Jail are 40 percent less expensive than at a comparable jail in Denver.