Cost for medical care at $5,896 a year per inmate
By Shavonne Potts
SALISBURY — The North Carolina Department of Correction had more than 40,000 inmates in custody in the previous fiscal year. Piedmont Correctional Institute houses about 1,000 of those prisoners.
Inmates are living longer and many more are serving longer sentences, making them the group that would likely require more medical care.
According to Abhay Agarwal, N.C. Department of Correction deputy medical director, the average cost per inmate in the last fiscal year was $5,896, which was a 5.5 percent decrease despite an increase in of the average inmate population.
The cost to provide medical needs to inmates includes all medical, mental and dental care.
Prisoners who have medical needs that exceed the capabilities of a correctional facility’s medical staff may be sent to a community hospital.
Piedmont Correctional is contracted to use Catawba Valley Medical Center in Hickory and Rowan Regional Medical Center in Salisbury.
“Catawba Valley has a secure care unit where we keep custody officers from Alexander Correctional,” said John Morgan, department of correction family nurse practitioner. Morgan is the lead provider for the western region.
If an inmate must stay at the Hickory hospital, a correction officer is with them in the secure unit.
However, if an inmate has an urgent need that can only be met by a hospital facility, “inmates go to the closest hospital,” Morgan said.
In 2010, Rowan Regional admitted 48 inmates for care. That was nearly half of all hospitalized patients from the prison.
There were 247 inmates who received outpatient care for services such as X-rays, which is equal to 0.24 percent of outpatient care.
“Our public safety department works collaboratively with law enforcement to assure that inmates are constantly supervised and that safety for all is maintained. There is a corrections officer with the inmate during their entire visit,” said Dari Caldwell, president of Rowan Regional.
In some instances, people who are convicted of crimes are veterans with disabilities. Those veterans are still treated through the prison medical facilities. The Hefner VA Medical Center is restricted from providing hospital or outpatient care to an incarcerated veteran when the prison institution where they are being held has the sole responsibility to give care.
The VA does work with prisoners who are about to be paroled to discuss their benefits once they are released, said Carol Waters, Hefner VA public affairs officer.
The VA has an outreach coordinator who regularly meets with prisoners who are nearing release to discuss “how benefits can resume once they get out,” Waters said.
Veterans Administration facilities throughout the U.S. have a veterans justice outreach coordinator.
The VA can pay certain benefits to veterans who are imprisoned, be it federal, state or a local institution. But the amount the VA can pay depends on the type of benefit and the reason that person is in prison.
If a person is in prison because of a felony or misdemeanor conviction, disability pension payments are discontinued effective on the 61st day of imprisonment following the conviction.
In 2008, the Division of Prisons began constructing new medical facilities in Raleigh at Central Prison and North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women.
The hope is that the new 336-bed, five-story hospital at Central Prison in Raleigh will alleviate the need for community hospitals.
The new $155 million facility replaces a dated infirmary and is expected to save taxpayers $40 million a year.
The new hospital, which will also provide mental health care for inmates, has two surgical suites and will be able to provide chemotherapy.
Piedmont sends its prisoners who require regular or even daily chemotherapy to a community facility.
Caring for prisoners
N.C. Department of Correction Medical costs:
$227.8 million, 2008-09
$253 million, 2009-10
$239 million, 2011
All costs are for fiscal year July 1-June 30.
Costs includes general medical care, dental, mental, pharmacy, community hospital care and staffing costs.
Source: N.C. Department of Correction
Contact reporter Shavonne Potts at 704-797-4253.