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Adopt prison care, reap rewards

By Daniel Feeney

April 4, 2010 9:00 p.m.

Governor Schwarzenegger, in an effort to help lower prison costs, recently proposed a potential takeover of the California prison health system by the University of California. Such a change, while dramatic, might provide the state with a more efficient, higher- quality prison health care system, freeing up taxpayer money for other important state expenditures.

According to NuPhysicia, a company with ties to the University of Texas and the state’s primary consultant on prison health care reform, this proposal has the potential to increase prison health care efficiency and save more than $4 billion over five years, and $12 billion over 10 years. Currently, California spends about $2.4 billion a year on inmate health care, an incredibly high amount even when considering the large number of prisoners the state holds.

When you compare the average health care cost per day per prisoner, it is striking just how expensive California prison health care is. Currently, the state averages $41.25 per prisoner per day. New Jersey and Georgia face costs per prisoner per day of $15.84 and $10.25, respectively. Texas, whose prison system houses around 120,000 prisoners, somewhat comparable to California’s 160,000 prisoners, has a prison health care cost of $9.67.

Under the proposed plan, California’s average per day cost per prisoner could be $19.34, which, although it will not be as low as in many other states, is a step toward attaining manageable costs. Though there may be some inherent risk involved with a planned switch to UC control, the study has demonstrated that there are great rewards to be reaped.

According to the Los Angeles Times, some of the regents are skeptical of a UC takeover of prison health care because of financial and legal risks. Beyond this, NuPhysicia is a telemedicine company, and some of the changes to the system involve using videoconferencing to reduce face-to-face meetings with doctors. One wonders whether a system with fewer in-person interactions can increase the quality of health care. We should also question whether or not this could potentially distract the UC from its primary job of providing higher education to the state of California.

Prison medical expert Ron Shansky questioned the regents’ ability and willingness to take over the prison system, according to The California Report. Beyond their ability to take on the task, he acknowledges the difficulty of getting this proposal past the unions, given that under this plan, jobs will be cut.

Although we should by no means ignore these potential risk factors in the takeover, the potential for the state, and by extension the UC itself, to benefit from these sweeping changes is enormous. Before rejecting the proposal based upon its detriments, we should closely examine all the aspects of the proposal.

Although the UC Regents still have to look into the feasibility of such a takeover, there are some clear-cut advantages that proponents of the plan have touted as a reason for switching over to the UC. By increasing centralization and using electronic records, costs can be cut and efficiency increased. According to The New York Times, Sharon Aungst, chief deputy secretary of correctional health care with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said in an interview that the prison health care system has become so decentralized that it is now four different systems: dental, mental health, medical and disability.

By improving the efficiency of the system, the state can lower costs, but more than that, the assessment by NuPhysicia also claims health care quality can be improved. Although there are questions about whether patients can be effectively treated over video, any claims that the California prison care health system can be improved is something that should be looked into, especially given the current state of the prison system.

While the UC may face some danger from taking on more responsibility and new liability, we may also reap the indirect reward of increased funding because of savings to the state. As students, we often protest when our education is threatened, but stay silent on other important state issues which are financially intertwined with our education.

Being both public university students and citizens of California, we should certainly think about supporting a change which can save the state hundreds of millions of dollars every year. This proposed change is not something to be taken lightly, but in light of the budget situation, it is something which the state and UC should consider seriously.

Email Feeney at [email protected] Send general comments to [email protected]

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