Hemelt: Health care for newly released offenders can benefit many

Published 12:03 am Saturday, March 4, 2017

I would rather spend money on crime prevention, as opposed to shelling out after the fact for prosecution and incarceration.

It’s also extremely important to note that a crime prevented saves a victim or victims from robbery, assault or much worse.

James M. Le Blanc said this week the key solution to reducing Louisiana’s high incarceration rate and the state’s recidivism rate while keeping citizens safe and saving taxpayer money is helping incarcerated individuals enroll into Medicaid.

The coverage would then begin once the individual’s sentence is complete and they transition out of prison.

Le Blanc, Department of Public Safety and Corrections Secretary for Louisiana, says nearly a quarter of our state’s offenders have serious mental health issues and 75 percent have substance use disorders.

“For every dollar we spend toward treatment in the community, we save six dollars toward criminal justice costs,” Le Blanc said.

As someone who has held a steady job since college, always subtracted a healthy portion of my paycheck for health insurance and never been arrested, it burns me up knowing taxes are devoted to this.

However, if my dollar has to be spent, I’d rather it be used efficiently for a cure rather than a treatment. In the meantime, if it can help my daughter, mother or wife — or yours for that matter — avoid becoming the victim of crime, I’m in favor of it.

The Department of Health and Department of Public Safety & Corrections announced this week that numerous studies show access to mental health, substance use and other health care services helps former offenders better integrate back into their communities, lessening the likelihood of these individuals committing future crimes.

Because of Medicaid expansion, the state is now helping incarcerated individuals enroll into Medicaid.

Dr. Rebekah Gee, secretary of the Department of Health, said under Medicaid expansion, Louisiana can use enhanced federal funding to make health care coverage available to individuals who are transitioning out of prison.

Louisiana began planning for this program in late 2015, scheduling implementation in phases beginning with the seven state correctional facilities. Subsequent phases include offenders housed in local jails.

It’s a problem local officials have dealt with for years.

St. Charles Parish Sheriff Greg Champagne recently advocated that Louisiana’s mentally ill need health care not a jail cell.

“Right now, in jails across the county and particularly in my jail, there are people who suffer from mental illness and, quite frankly, do not belong here,” he wrote in an opinion column. “Why then, you may ask, are they in jail? The answer isn’t as simple as ‘they committed a crime.’”

Champagne stressed jails are not equipped or trained to care for these people in need and certainly not fiscally privileged to appropriately house a mental health facility.

Local prosecutors have also expressed similar concerns when it comes to health care, especially mental health care, for those caught in the criminal justice system.

Under the new system, Department of Corrections Medical Director Dr. Raman Singh said the DOC identifies offenders who have a high need for health care services and performs case management activities immediately prior to their release. This includes offenders with a serious mental illness, co-occurring substance use disorders, two or more medical conditions, HIV or other chronic health conditions.

“As these individuals are identified, information is shared with the Medicaid managed care plans which then develop care plans that include doctor appointments and prescriptions,” Singh said. “This is all included as a component of the prison discharge planning.”

More of our allocations should go to preventing future assaults on our community, hopefully reducing the amount of innocent victims our state already collects at a dangerous rate.

Stephen Hemelt is publisher and editor of L’OBSERVATEUR. He can be reached at 985-652-9545  or stephen.hemelt@lobservateur.com.