While individuals with recent criminal justice involvement represent only 4.2% of the population, they make up 8.5% of all emergency department (ED) expenditures, which translates to an additional $5.2 billion in annual spending across the health care sector.
The federal government has complete control over access to medical care for incarcerated individuals and immigrants in detention facilities, and is primarily responsible for the quality of the sanitation, nutrition, and shelter accommodations. Despite this level of control, conditions in many detention facilities and prisons are exceptionally poor.
Over eighty percent of recently released prisoners are uninsured, and upon re-entry into society they struggle to obtain quality medical care for both pre-existing conditions and those that may have been caused or exacerbated by detention. As they often do not have a medical home, upon release many will present to emergency departments (EDs) for their health care needs, and, because of the low rates of insurance coverage, hospitals are left to pick up the bill for the gaps in care created by the government’s deficiencies.
The disaggregation of government detention facilities and financial responsibility for downstream health care costs of released individuals creates a “regulatory moral hazard,” in which the government has little incentive to invest in the health and health care of incarcerated and detained individuals. In the absence of federal reform incentivizing investment and reducing cost-shifting to the health care sector, hospital systems should build interdisciplinary care teams focused on formerly incarcerated and detained individuals while investing in comprehensive, community-based health care.