Earlier this month Bridge Magazine published a guest column titled “Michigan restricts inmates’ Medicaid access. Here’s why we should care.”

I think we should care about facts and that column was largely devoid of them. Anyone who read that column would leave with a fundamental misunderstanding of what goes on in this state and in the Michigan Department of Corrections.

Michigan is a national leader when it comes to corrections and criminal justice reform, and the more than 13,000 women and men who work for the MDOC spend every day bettering the lives of those they supervise in order to make this state a safer and healthier place to live.

Our healthcare and facility staff provide medical care to prisoners across this state and as a department we understand and appreciate the solemn duty to care for all those under our supervision. The MDOC spends roughly $300 million annually on prisoner healthcare, ranging from routine physicals, all the way to dialysis and chemotherapy treatments.

To be clear, Michigan does not restrict Medicaid access to prisoners. Federal law does not allow it.

The guest column is based on the incorrect premise that Michigan, or any state, can make the federal government pay for the healthcare of state prisoners by having them placed on Medicaid.

The column asks the question, “Why do we continue to exclude Michigan’s inmates from our Medicaid program?”

The answer can be found by clicking the link the author included in her column from the Kaiser Family Foundation that states; “federal law prohibits Medicaid payment for most health care services provided to individuals while incarcerated.”

Again, there is no benefit to signing up a prisoner for Medicaid while they are incarcerated because the federal government will not pay for their medical care while in state prison. The only way Medicaid provides any payment is if the prisoner is sent to an off-site hospital and admitted for inpatient treatment.

The Pew Charitable Trusts put out a paper in 2016 praising Michigan as one of four states that were early adopters of this and showed that in fiscal years 2014 and 2015 Michigan saw the most savings of any of those states with $19 million in medical costs covered by Medicaid.

There are great benefits though for assisting prisoners with Medicaid enrollment as they are set to parole. Since Michigan chose to expand Medicaid, we have been helping paroling prisoners complete this paperwork so all they have to do upon release is walk into their local DHHS office and turn on their Medicaid benefits. In some MDOC parole offices, including those in Detroit, we actually have DHHS caseworkers inside our parole office so after they have their first meeting with their agent the day they get out of prison, we walk them down the hall and to have their Medicaid benefits turned on.

We would invite Ms. Reed to visit this office to see the process herself and talk to the staff involved in helping parolees gain access to healthcare on the outside.

Prior to the passage of the Affordable Care Act and Healthy Michigan, the number of paroling prisoners receiving Medicaid would have been next to zero. But because of the hard work of our staff and this legislation, tens of thousands of returning citizens have healthcare.

In the 2019 fiscal year alone, we successfully helped 7,343 individuals get their Medicaid applications approved upon release from prison.

Lastly, the author incorrectly and grossly mischaracterized the mission of the MDOC as one that addresses crime through punitive sanctions and that department leaders want to “punish offenders.”

On Michigan Radio’s “Stateside” program earlier this year, MDOC Director Heidi Washington said in a wide-ranging interview that people are sentenced to prison as punishment for the crime they committed, but that they “don’t come to prison for punishment.”

Our goal is to make the prison environment they enter one that is productive, that allows them opportunities to better educate themselves, learn job skills and help them to find employment, stable housing and healthcare before they are released.

Prison only offers short-term public safety. While behind bars, the public is safe from those the courts have sent to us. But long-term public safety is our true goal and that is only accomplished when those who leave prison do so as better people than when they came to us and are equipped with the skills and mindset necessary to be successful in the community.

That is our true mission.

About the author: Chris Gautz is the spokesman for the Michigan Department of Corrections. This guest commentary first appeared in Bridge Magazine, an online publication of the nonpartisan, nonprofit Center for Michigan.

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