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Opinion: Help Michigan by using Medicaid to pay for prisoners’ health

Robert A. Ficano

It is no surprise the U.S. government is running its money-printing presses at a breakneck speed.

With cities, counties and states facing unprecedented budget deficits, the COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked unprecedented financial damage to our governments and economic system. 

Michigan alone is facing a projected $3.2 billion deficit. Wayne County has announced a projected deficit of over $150 million. The financial conditions on all levels of government have been thrown into chaos because of the economic shut down for two months.

There is something Congress can do. It can change the Medicaid law so that prisoners are eligible for medical and mental health services, Ficano writes.

Congress, in its partisan divide, is seeking strategies to respond to racial injustice, the health of our citizens and the financial losses brought about by the pandemic.

What can Congress do besides finger-point to actually help state and local governments?

Nobody realistically believes, with the partisan infighting, that Congress is going to totally bail out the cities, counties and states.

But there is something Congress can do. It can change the Medicaid law so that prisoners are eligible for medical and mental health services. Right now, counties and states must pick up the cost of prisoner medical care.

Even if the prisoners were on Medicaid before incarceration, they are not eligible once they are in jail or prison. Even if they have private insurance, most health care insurance companies will not pay for services while someone is incarcerated.

Michigan Department of Corrections alone spends over $300 million on health care. The Wayne County Jail spends over $20 million on health care of inmates. Although most of the inmates would qualify for Medicaid, the law prohibits the federal program from picking up the costs. If the inmates were on the street, they would qualify for Medicaid.

During my visits to the White House as Wayne County executive, I along with my colleagues raised the issue of ineligible Medicaid directly with then-President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden. Both men were sympathetic but Congress would not act.

There could be an additional benefit for the uninsured in states that have rejected the expansion of Medicaid for their citizens. Those states might reconsider their options if their prison population health care can be relieved.

So Congress — pause the partisan bickering. You want to help states and local government? Changing the Medicaid law for inmate eligibility would be a good logical start. That is something that can help local and state governments.

Robert Ficano is the former Wayne County sheriff and Wayne County executive. He is a host on 910AM, and adjunct professor at Wayne County Community College.