Jails facing roadblocks to fund medical costs

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SALT LAKE CITY (News4Utah) –  Taxpayers and not the federal government are being forced to pay for rising medical costs in county jails.

Former Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder said there are too many obstacles facing county governments and its forcing taxpayers to foot the bill.

But he said it’s the cost of fighting crime.

“It’s an issue that far too few people are aware of,” said Winder who is now Moab’s police chief.

The issue came to light Wednesday when Utah County Sheriff Jim Tracy resigned over medical costs his jail is facing.

“At this point in time I am also resigning as sheriff effective August 1,” Sheriff Tracy told the Utah County Commission during its regular meeting.

He cited the near $1 million deficit in medical jail costs and frustration that the commission isn’t addressing it.

“This ties into a  broken immigration system that we have in our country and with this broken immigration system we have ripple effects,” said Bill Lee, a commissioner.

He said an undocumented immigrant jailed in Utah County is costing a half million dollars alone.

But Winder said it’s not an immigration problem but that comes with the cost of jailing anyone.

“When an individual is arrested, they enter into a county jail, the medical expenses are 100 percent borne by the citizens of the county,” Winder said.

According to Commissioner Lee, attempts to have the federal government pay those medical costs failed because that one inmate is facing state charges.

He said once he’s prosecuted, he’ll be deported and that’s when the federal government starts paying.

Winder said jails aren’t getting help from the courts.  He said judges won’t let low-risk inmates to be released for medical reasons.  In addition, he said insurance companies are walking away from paying medical bills.  He said they won’t pay medical costs for jailed clients.

“These insurance companies are receiving the payments for the coverage and not providing it to individuals in the jail and so taxpayers are,” he said.

Winder said efforts to get insurance companies to pay those medical costs have been thwarted by the legislature. He said the insurance lobby has a tight grip on lawmakers.

Wednesday, Commissioner Lee said they will move $450,000 from the jail budget to cover the medical deficit.  And he said there won’t be a need for layoffs.  Winder disagreed with that conclusion.  He said that money will eventually have to be made up and it will leave a gap in someone’s budget.  He said often times sheriff’s have those other pockets of money earmarked for other jail expenses including for staff and salaries.

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