Opinion

Tri-City Herald: Helping released inmates navigate health care is smart move

We were duly impressed with the Benton County jail’s recent news that it would be assisting inmates with applications for Medicaid coverage as their release dates draw near.

Some are thinking: Why should we help convicts? Won’t it just cost more taxpayer money?

That’s the wrong way to think about it.

Many incarcerated folks have a lot working against them when they re-enter society.

Being unwell can’t help their attempt to get going in the right direction.

Health care — especially mental health care — might just be a catalyst for some to get themselves together and become productive.

“I think it’s revolutionary,” said a chaplain at the Benton County Jail.

Inmates are receiving health care while they’re incarcerated. When they are released, many of them don’t have the ability or option to continue that care. Once they’re out, they can get lost pretty easily, discontinuing needed medications and treatments.

Lourdes Counseling Center staff already working at the jail will help inmates set to be released in 30 days with applications for state-federal insurance program now known as Apple Health in Washington state.

“It’s important that people understand the reason we’re doing this — it makes sense not just for the inmate, but for the community as well,” said Melanie Olsen, who manages jail services for Lourdes. “Hopefully it will reduce recidivism and keep people healthier while they’re in the community, so they’re not having to access the emergency room or get care at the last minute, which isn’t the most effective course of treatment for any disorder — medical or mental health.”

There is savings in breaking the cycle. Law enforcement, jails, courts, and emergency rooms are more expensive than getting people to stay on thier meds.

It’s a natural step for the jail, which already offers exiting inmates referrals for housing, chemical dependency treatment and other social services.

Mental illness looms large among the population at the jail, and the county is considering a new addition with specialized mental health care. With a $3.8 million price tag, it may sound pricey but it is well worth it. Mentally ill folks end up in jail, when more often they need inpatient care or long-term medication programs. Mixing them with the general population is not good for anyone. Getting them the care they need is critical.

Money from the 0.3 percent public safety sales tax approved by voters will help with low-level criminals whose problems are driven by mental illness. A mental health court and diversion programs are in the works.

The health care piece of the puzzle is a great step toward stopping the costly revoloving door that many offenders are in now.

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