HARRISBURG – The Wolf Administration officials joined Sen. Pat Vance (R-Cumberland/York), county commissioners, stakeholders, and advocates to support Senate Bill 1279 at the Cumberland County Prison.
The bill proposes the suspension of — as opposed to termination of — Medical Assistance benefits, also known as Medicaid, for individuals entering the corrections system.
“For some time, I have been working to suspend rather than terminate Medical Assistance benefits for those who are incarcerated,” said Senator Vance.
“Not only will this allow for a seamless transition for those with mental illness and drug addiction when they are released, but it will save money for county governments and taxpayers. I’m hopeful that the final 2016-17 budget will include this important change.”
Currently, Pennsylvania is one of 19 states in which Medicaid benefits are terminated upon entry into the criminal justice system. When an individual is released, they must reapply and reenroll for Medicaid.
In addition to making it harder for the individual to obtain needed health care, termination creates an administrative burden, requiring the state to process a new application and check the person’s eligibility again.
Senate Bill 1279 proposes a temporary suspension, for a period of no more than two years, of an individual’s Medicaid. This allows people who are incarcerated to quickly reactivate their coverage upon release. Currently, 16 states follow a time-limited suspension policy.
“The Department of Human Services is committed to providing access to high-quality services and ensuring that people leaving the corrections system have access to the necessary health care coverage,” said DHS Secretary Ted Dallas.
“Access to health care has proven essential to helping people avoid returning to jail or prison after release. This bill will enable the department to deliver benefits the day of release – resulting in maintenance of treatment, better health outcomes, and more successful re-entry into the community.”
There is currently a treatment gap for vulnerable individuals with mental illness and drug addiction leaving the corrections system. While they receive the medical help they need while incarcerated, a gap often exists upon release until a Medical Assistance application can be processed. This all too often leads to behavior that results in further incarceration, and the cycle of recidivism continues.
As Pennsylvania continues to battle the opioid epidemic, providing immediate access to treatment is another way the commonwealth can combat this issue.
“This legislation is vitally important for the state corrections system and is a game changer for counties, which have large numbers of individuals entering and leaving prison every day and often don’t know until the last minute when people will be released,” said Corrections Secretary John Wetzel.
“These are highly vulnerable populations and many need ongoing treatment for substance abuse disorder or mental illness. The passage of this legislation would mean thousands of imprisoned individuals at the state and county level would be able to resume their benefits immediately upon release.”
In addition to the efforts supported through this bill, DHS is ensuring individuals who were not enrolled in Medicaid prior to incarceration have immediate access to benefits, if eligible.
DHS will shorten applications, provide access to electronic enrollment options in county jails and state correctional institutes, and will expedite applications for individuals released from the corrections system, currently occurring within five days.
“We’re thinking through benefit acquisition for everyone. This will put Pennsylvania ahead of the curve in terms of progressive Medicaid policies,” said Dallas.