Each year Elk County budgets a set amount to cover medical fees incurred by inmates. Greg Gebauer, warden at the Elk County Prison, explained that once a person is admitted to the county prison, their care, custody and control is the responsibility of the county, and the same is true for states and the country for inmates in the state and federal prison systems.
The issue recently became a hot topic in Meadville when the Meadville Tribune published an article on Jan. 26 highlighting how the suicide of an inmate in the Crawford County jail in December 2010 may end up costing that county over $290,000 in medical bills. According to reports, the Crawford County Commissioners indicated that they do not have enough money in their general fund to pay the fees and will have to utilize money in the county's capital improvements fund.
Both Gebauer and Elk County Commissioner June Sorg indicated that the scenario is one that could play out in any county throughout the state.
"Anyone, once they're admitted to our prison, then the county is responsible. Even if they have a medical card from the welfare office, they lose that and the county is responsible to pay all their medical bills," Sorg said.
Gebauer noted that the only way that the cost of an inmate's medical expenses would not be incurred by the county is if the individual had his or her own valid medical insurance plan. He added that while the county seldom runs into that scenario, it has happened on occasion in the past.
"Maybe a younger inmate is on their mother's or father's medical insurance and we have used that medical insurance for things," Gebauer said. "But when they come to jail, if they're on the medical card, the minute they come to jail the medical assistance stops paying."
Occasionally inmates' medical fees are covered by Social Security.
"It all depends on the inmate's status. It depends if they're pre-trial or if they're convicted or sentenced, because if they're convicted or sentenced for certain crimes, then Social Security will also stop," Gebauer said.
The county does include line items in its annual budget for hospital costs, doctor fees, medical prescriptions for inmates and other related expenses. The annual budget also factors in the cost of inflation.