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Effort To Eliminate Medical Co-Pay For Prison Inmates Fails

Photo by Martin Brosy on Unsplash

Illinois prison inmates will continue to pay $5 for medical and dental visits, after the legislature tried and failed to get rid of the fee last week.

Prison reform advocates want to eliminate the co-pay, saying it deters inmates from seeking necessary treatment. An Illinois Department of Corrections spokeswoman emphasized that no one is denied care for not being able to pay.  

The effort to get rid of the co-pay comes at a time when medical care in the correctional system is under scrutiny due to a class-action lawsuit in federal court.

A recent report from court-appointed experts in that case found poor medical care led to preventable deaths in Illinois prisons. The suit is set to go to trial in December.

Illinois lawmakers agreed to remove the co-pay in the spring with the bill passing both chambers. But Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner issued an amendatory veto over the summer, proposing to reduce the fee from $5 to $3.90.

Most states charge a co-pay for medical visits in prisons, and the average rate is around $3.50, according to a 2017 analysis from the Prison Policy Institute.

In Rauner’s veto message, he worried about the “potential abuses of a free medical system” that would overwhelm the already “overburdened” medical system.

Lawmakers in the Illinois House rejected the change early in November's veto session. But the Senate didn’t take it up for a vote before the session ended, with the sponsor, Democratic state Sen. Elgie Sims, saying they didn’t have the necessary support to override.

Jennifer Vollen-Katz with the John Howard Association, a Chicago-based advocacy group, says she was disappointed with the result. She points out that most inmates who are able to work in prison earn very little money.

“People realistically, reasonably don't have a whole lot of confidence in the treatment they're going to receive, and they have to wonder if it's worth that expenditure when they have so little money available to them,” she said.

The Illinois Department of Corrections filed a note with the legislature saying elimination of the fee could cost the department $59 million over 10 years. A department spokeswoman said the fee brings in around $400,000 a year.

The department is set to spend around $179 million on health care for inmates this fiscal year.

For now the medical co-pay stands, but backers say they’ll try again to convince lawmakers to eliminate the co-pay next spring.

Copyright 2021 NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS. To see more, visit NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS.

Mary is a reporter at NPR Illinois and graduated from the Public Affairs Reporting program atUISand received her BA in International Studies from American University. Previously Mary worked as a planning consultant and reported for the State Journal-Register where she covered city government.