As soon as the cell door at any county jail, a little-known federal regulation goes into effect barring anyone in jail from receiving any type of federal medical assistance, says the Minneapolis Star Tribune. The rule gives officials around the country million-dollar headaches. The nation’s 3,000 counties must pay the medical costs of these prisoners until federal benefits are restored, which can take up to three months after their release. The benefits are terminated regardless of a person’s guilt or innocence. The reasoning seems to be that the person wouldn’t be in jail unless he or she had done something wrong. “It doesn’t make a lot of common sense,” said Jim McDonough, a Ramsey County, MN, commissioner whose board has urged the federal government to change the policy. He estimates that the policy costs Ramsey County almost $3 million a year.
Extrapolated nationwide, the total costs to counties run into the hundreds of millions of dollars each year, the National Association of Counties (NACo). “Conviction isn’t the key; the key is incarceration,” said a federal official. “There’s no practical difference. You’re in jail. You’re the state’s responsibility. They’re housing you, feeding you, taking care of you.” What concerns local officials is the blanket nature of the ban and the fact that it often hurts the very people for whom programs such as Medicaid are designed to help. “This is a basic civil rights issue,” said Ron Wiborg of the Hennepin County community corrections unit. “Who suffers the most because of this? The poor and minorities.”