ELLSWORTH — The Hancock County Jail’s inmate health-care budget for the year was wiped out in three months, due in part to the medical costs of two inmates – one who is terminally ill and another who is expecting a baby, according to Jail Administrator Tim Richardson.
That was news Richardson delivered to the Hancock County Budget Advisory Committee during a review of the proposed FY 2022 Sheriff’s Office budget, which includes the budget for jail operations. The meeting was held Oct. 20 at the Hancock County Courthouse.
The jail usually budgets $140,000 annually for inmate medical expenses, Richardson said in an interview Tuesday. However, three months of medical expenses racked up receipts totaling $178,000. Nearly half of that amount was from March 2021 when medical care totaled $92,784, according to the administrator.
“It’s just pushing the costs onto the county, that’s what it does,” said Sheriff Scott Kane. “We have to assume those medical costs. This year, we’ve had two very large medical expenses.”
A significant issue is that if an inmate enters the jail with MaineCare benefits, after 30 days the inmate loses MaineCare, according to Richardson.
That’s because the federal Social Security Act prohibits Medicaid coverage for inmates, so medical costs are the responsibility of the jails and prisons.
Lisa Haberzetti, deputy communications director for the Maine Senate Democratic Office, said the inmate exclusion policy does have one exception, which is when an incarcerated person requires a hospital stay over 24 hours.
“Otherwise, their health-care needs are the responsibility of Corrections,” Haberzetti said. “So, in short, this is not a Maine law or rule, but it is a federal requirement of our Medicaid program, MaineCare.”
Richardson said it is rare when a hospital keeps an inmate as an inpatient stay for over 24 hours.
As short-staffed as the jail has been for months now, a significant portion of Assistant Jail Administrator Frank Shepard’s job is to work with hospitals and providers to reduce bills as much as possible.
“We try everything,” Richardson said. “The hospitals work with us because they know.”
Kane said the jail employs a registered nurse who is on duty 32 hours a week caring for inmate medical concerns. The nurse is responsible for evaluating who needs more care than what can be provided at the jail. Among the care the jail has provided are vaccination clinics. The jail held a COVID-19 vaccination clinic for any interested inmates earlier this year and held another one on Monday.
Haberzetti said that the Maine Department of Health and Human Services and the Maine Department of Corrections have been working together for a few years to ensure that inmates have the ability to apply for MaineCare before they are released. But that still leaves the expenses incurred when they are incarcerated.
“We get killed with medical costs,” Kane said. “You can’t budget for those, and you can’t plan for those. It’s just crazy.”
The jail has a program for nonviolent inmates who can be released for home confinement with the use of tracking bracelets.
“We tried to get them out on a tracking bracelet and were unable to do that,” Kane said, speaking of the terminally ill inmate and the pregnant inmate.
One of the Budget Advisory Committee members asked about the effects of delays in getting inmates through the court system because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Kane said there are more than 40 inmates awaiting trial and six who have been sentenced.
One issue is that inmates can manipulate the system so that they serve their time in the county jail even though their sentence is ordered to be served in the Department of Corrections, according to officials. Any sentence nine months and a day and longer is to be served in a state prison. Sentences nine months and under are to be served in the county jail.
“So many times, someone charged with a crime will drag it out,” Kane said. “So instead of doing state time, they serve it here.”
Richardson said “someone agreed to two nine-month sentences,” so even though the sentence was 18 months in the DOC, on the technicality, the sentence is being served locally.
“We’re licensed for 57 [inmates] and we’re right in around that number consistently,” Richardson said. “The area PDs [police departments] have really helped us.” If officers are able to serve a summons instead of making an arrest, they do, he said.
The sheriff added, “If there are some we can put out on tracking bracelets, we do that.” At the beginning of the pandemic, prosecutors statewide dismissed “tons and tons of charges.”
The Budget Advisory Committee is led by Stonington Town Manager Kathleen Billings.
“I think people don’t understand how much this costs and why and the cost-shifting onto the county,” Billings said. “It makes people aware of who you’re sending to Augusta.”
Another committee member, Surry Select Board Chairwoman Betsy Armstrong, asked Kane what the committee members could do about the MaineCare situation.
“Talk to your representatives and your senator,” Kane said.
The proposed jail budget for FY 2022 is $2,848,015. County taxpayers will be responsible for funding most of that – a proposed $2,044,233. Revenue, including some state funding and income from boarding inmates from other county jails, makes up the $800,000 difference.
Committee member and Trenton Select Board Chairman Fred Ehrlenbach asked Kane when he would need a new jail.
The sheriff replied that it wouldn’t be in his lifetime.
“There’s an abundance of beds in county jails, but they don’t have the staff to operate the jails,” Kane said. There are sections of jails at Two Bridges and Cumberland County that have been closed because there aren’t enough corrections officers.
Speaking of being short-staffed, that’s the situation at the Hancock County Jail. Richardson said the county is offering starting pay of $17.56 an hour for part-time corrections officers. Those interested in applying should contact Richardson at 667-7588.
“The jail’s not full of bad people,” Richardson said. “They’ve made bad choices.”