Oklahoma ranked in last place in the country for state spending on prison health care over a recent five-year period, a study released Tuesday found.
The study, done by the Pew Charitable Trusts and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, analyzed health care costs in state prisons from 2007 to 2011. It showed that not only did Oklahoma spend less than any other state on health care per inmate in 2011 — $2,558 — but that number is a 17 percent reduction from 2007.
An increase in aging prisoners and the prevalence of chronic diseases, mental illness and substance-use disorders were among key factors for increasing prison health care costs cited in the study.
According to the study, from 2007 to 2011, the number of inmates age 55 or older in Oklahoma increased from 6.6 percent to nearly 8 percent of the total prison population. In 2014, those inmates represent 8.5 percent of Oklahoma’s prison population, state Corrections Department spokesman Jerry Massie said.
One third of Oklahoma inmates require mental health treatment, and more inmates are serving time on drug possession or distribution charges than any other type of crime, he said.
In an effort to combat high levels of violence at the Oklahoma State Reformatory in 2012, Corrections Department officials decided to remove any offender younger than the age of 40 from the prison, a state facility in Granite that houses close to 1,000 medium- and minimum-security inmates. While violence rates plummeted in the following year, the total number of medical visits more than doubled.
Eric Franklin, division manager over health services for the Corrections Department, called addressing the medical needs of the state’s aging prisoners a “daunting issue,” but he added the state is taking steps to reduce the growing impact of medical costs.
Franklin said the department has been preparing for the increase in older inmates by utilizing some of the options outlined in the study released Tuesday, such as trying to make good use of Medicaid reimbursements, pushing for early medical paroles, and using telemedicine, which allows doctors to see patients via webcam rather than in person.
The study also found that states that did not opt to expand Medicaid through the Affordable Care Act could miss out on potential cost savings through medical reimbursement.
“For those states, it will really be business as usual,” said Maria Schiff, one of the study’s researchers. “It’s really the states that have expanded that would experience a different type of savings open to them for the first time under the Affordable Care Act.”
In 2012, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin chose not to expand the state’s Medicaid program, which would have increased who was eligible. Fallin said expanding the program, a key element of the Affordable Care Act, would be too costly for the state.
Editor's note: You can read the Pew study in its entirety below.