aANACORTES, Wash. -- About 25 people come through the Skagit County jail's sickbay every day. Some of the prisoners have chronic conditions that require expensive care. Hardly any of them have health insurance.
"Somebody has to pay for it. The law is very clear," said Chief Corrections Deputy Charlie Wend. "When you have somebody in your custody, you're responsible for their medical treatment."
The jurisdiction that arrested the inmate has to pay for that treatment. It's money that usually comes directly from the local police department. They're expenidtures that are hard to budget for because no one can predict the number of sick criminals who will be arrested from year to year.
"They can run into the tens of thousands of dollars a year," said Wend. "It can just crush a city."
Inmate health care costs are handcuffing counties and cities across the country. In the small Skagit County city of Anacortes, however, they're looking to the President's controversial Affordable Care Act to free their budget.
Prisoner medical care runs as high as $30,000 a year for the Anacortes Police Department. Right now, one inmate alone being treated at Skagit Valley Hospital is costing the city more than double its budget for the entire year.
"So far, we're in about $23,000," said Police Chief Bonnie Bowers.
Anacortes is now one of the first cities in the state to experiment with buying sick prisoners government health insurance policies. Only those inmates who consent, have serious or chronic health problems and are declared indigent will be purchased coverage by the city. People who are already on Medicaid but are charged with felonies automatically lose their health insurance. Chief Bowers believes the city can't help but save thousands of dollars every year.
Said Bowers, "If the cost of the insurance premium is less than the cost of treatment, it just makes good sense for cities to insure their inmates."
If the idea catches on nationwide, some worry the system won't be able to pay for all of the sick prisoners, meaning higher premiums for everyone who buys in to the government insurance program.
But in Anacortes, at least, it's the prescription for much needed relief.