An innocuous press release crossed my desk the other day about the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections extending its medical contract with a private firm that handles medical needs of state prisoners.
The press release touted the fact that the state will save $55 million under the extended contract with Prison Health Services Inc.
It's always nice to save a little money, but when you consider that the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections will spend $1.6 billion in the next fiscal year, the $55 million in savings is a drop in the bucket.
What surprised me was information buried deeper into the press release.
Pennsylvania taxpayers have to pay $73 million a year to pick up the cost of health coverage for 46,000 inmates housed in state prisons.
That seems a bit excessive to me. Politicians haggle over how to provide health insurance for the state’s working poor, but has anybody questioned how much money the state spends to make sure inmates stay healthy?
Do the math. A five-year extension of the current health contract at $73 million per year comes to $365 million.
By comparison, Gov. Ed Rendell is pushing a plan called "Cover All Pennsylvanians" to provide health coverage to the 800,000 uninsured adults in Pennsylvania. The governor's plan could cost $480 million to implement in its first year.
"Continuity of inmate care is a matter of importance to the department," Corrections Secretary Jeffrey A. Beard says in the press release. "By doing this, we are making sure that inmates continue to receive excellent health care services. The extension also allows the department to lock in low rates, saving more than $5 million now."
Do we have our spending priorities in the right place in this state? Why do we need to provide "excellent health care" to thieves, rapists and murderers when so many hardworking Pennsylvania residents are struggling to provide basic health care for their families?
Providing health care to prisoners is big business. The Tennessee-based Prison Health Services currently serves 180 jail and prison sites around the country, covering approximately 165,000 inmates in 24 states.
Is Pennsylvania trying to encourage people to commit crimes so they can get access to "excellent health care" in addition to food, fitness centers, job training, cable television and subscriptions to Playboy magazine?
Don't laugh. Berks County was forced to rehire a female prison guard who posed in Playboy. The warden fired her last year because he was concerned about the reaction from prisoners who would ogle sexy photos of the female guard when their issue of Playboy arrives at the prison.
The current $73-million-a-year contract with Prison Health Services started in 2003 and was scheduled to end in August 2008, Beard said.
In exchange for the five-year extension, Prison Health Services is placing a 4 percent cap on the annual rate of increase each year for the first two years of the extension and a 3.85 percent cap for the remaining three years, according to the Department of Corrections.
The $500,000-per-year cost reduction previously negotiated with Prison Health Services will continue through the additional five years of the contract, Beard says.
The caps and the price reductions for the additional five years are expected to save Pennsylvannia about $46 million, Beard says. Another $9 million would be saved by Prison Health Services continuing to provide for "a direct pass-through of professional liability costs outside the base fee during the entire five-year extension," he said.
I applaud the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections for trying to save taxpayer dollars. I wish other state agencies would do the same.
But I still want to know why prisoners are getting better access to health care than many Pennsylvanians taxpayers.