Saturday, May 2, 2009

Inmate medical bills causing agony

By Lou Elliott Jones

Levy County’s jail inmates are costing more at the doctor’s office than expected — including one prisoner who has a medical bill totaling $236,107.75 — and the sheriff has asked the county commission to take over paying the bills.

“Yep, that’s kind of a sore subject,” said Capt. Evan Sullivan, spokesman for Sheriff Johnny Smith.

The female inmate with the big medical bill has been in the jail for 27 days on a misdemeanor charge. As long as she is in jail, the sheriff and in turn, the county is responsible for her medical bills. Sullivan said the office is trying to have her bail lowered to be released on her own recognizance until she goes to trial, but has not been successful.

Federal law prohibits public officials and medical personnel from disclosing any identifying information about the inmate’s medical condition or treatment.

County Coordinator Freddie Moody said he and the Board of County Commissioners received a Feb. 18 memo from the sheriff outlining his economic difficulty in meeting the medical bills.

Since the fiscal year started on Oct. 1, 2008, the sheriff’s office has spent $198,000 on inmate medical care, despite having set aside only $100,000 for that care. “At this rate we could conceivably be $200,000 in the red before the fiscal year is up,” Smith said in his memo.

“When our designated line item for inmate medical c0st was depleted and we began sending the bills to the county, we were told that we would have to pay the bills by taking money from another line item. In some instances when certain circumstances arise, I would not have a problem doing as you have asked, but in my professional opinion, asking us to pay inmate medical, especially such a large sum, is not being fair to us.”

Smith went on to ask Moody to have County Attorney Anne Bast Brown look into possibly having jail inmates declared indigent. Such a move would make the inmate eligible to Medicaid.

The sheriff noted in the memo that is the medical provider cannot recover the cost of medical care from the inmate then they bill is to be paid by the General Fund of the county.

Moody said the county has been receiving bills from the sheriff’s office since the memo and he does not know the total amount owed.

He said the bills range from $30 for an X-ray to $11,000 and he confirmed that one inmate’s medical care bill, which came in recently and well after Smith’s memo is $236,107.75.

“You run into the situation where it seems everybody you incarcerate has a medical problem,” Moody said. He said the county faced a similar situation several years ago and it paid the bills when the sheriff could no longer afford them from his budget. He said the county attorney negotiated a lower payment for a number of the bills then and that may be a possibility in this case. But he also hinted that the jail’s medical staff could also take a look at getting the bills lowered.

“This amount here,” Moody said of the one large bill, “just came to my attention yesterday. This just came to my attention.”

He said the bills have come from Nature Coast Hospital in Williston, and Shands Hospital and North Florida General Hospital, both in Gainesville.

He noted that the sheriff has already spent $100,000 on he bills, he had $98,000 by Feb. 18 and more bills have come in, “and we’re only up to March.”

While the commissioners have received copies of the memo, Moody said they have not set aside a meeting to discuss the situation.

“You can’t budget for this,” Moody said. “You can’t know when you arrest somebody what it’s going to be. We’ve had trauma cases. We’ve had an inmate fell in the jail.

“All you can do is historically look back and average it out, and then you just get whammed.”

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