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Davis, California

Saturday, December 4, 2021

UC considers taking over prison care

Due to rising prison costs, Gov. Schwarzenegger and his team are considering placing the University of California system in charge of prison inmates’ heath care needs.

On Mar. 26, the UC Board of Regents announced the development of a special committee to analyze whether UC’s academic medical system should take over the California prison health care system. Estimates show the state may be able to save over $4 billion over a five-year period and $12 billion over the next decade as a result.

The committee will examine cost, the effect on labor relations and liability concerns.

“Success is defined by access, cost effectiveness and high quality,” said John Stobo, UC Senior Vice President for Health Sciences and Services. “Given this, what the governor proposes is reasonable. Whether or not this is in the best interest of the UC system remains to be determined.”

Stobo said the plan is consistent with the UC’s mission in current times of constrained financial resources, but it must make financial sense to the UC.

Officials are considering this transition due to the rising expenses of the 33 California adult prisons. The state currently maintains approximately 12,000 medical employees who assist inmates.

NuPhysicia is a University of Texas-affiliated consultant company working with the state to put an end to federal courts’ oversight of California prison medical systems. In 2006, a receiver held jurisdiction over the system, where prison medical costs jumped to $2.5 billion a year but have since lowered to now $2.2 billion.

According to NuPhysicia, costs are relatively higher than in most other states. California pays over $40 a day per prisoner’s health care, while Texas pays $9.67 a day, New Jersey $15.84 and Georgia $10.25.

“The study that claims UC oversight would cut cost was written by the Texas-based telemedicine firm NuPhysica, who stands to gain financially from such a change and so should be questioned,” said Ashely Fairburn, organizer for the California Prison Moratorium Project. “Such options as telemedicine will not lead to better health care, and in turn could exacerbate the problem. Telemedicine is a poor replacement for actual primary care.”

Those opposing the plan recognize the transition would largely decrease the number of employees who provide support and care to inmates. These include individuals involved in the prison guard union and prison physicians.

“I don’t agree that this is reform,” Fairburn said. “UC oversight is a red herring. The state needs to change its policies and reduce the number of people in prison in order to save money. Contracting with the UC system is just another way for the governor to avoid reducing the prison population.”

If the UC system and the prison system decide to collaborate, the next step would involve creating a centralized system of supervised care. The plan also calls for mass purchasing of prescription drugs, electronic record-keeping and the use of telemedicine. University officials would conduct hiring and supervision of doctors, dentists, psychiatrists and possibly pharmacists.

“The regents are extremely cautious about UC’s involvement because there are many complexities in the system,” Stobo said. “What has not yet been fully discussed is how UC could be involved, other than having direct responsibility for overseeing the care – and these discussions will occur -so, we have a long way to go.”

J. Clark Kelso is the court appointed receiver who has been strategizing with Schwarzenegger to reduce the receiver’s budget by $800 million for the following year.

“I am keenly aware, as are the courts, that a dollar that we can save in the prison health care program is a dollar that can be spent on other important priorities for the state, such as education, money for children, the elderly, other health care programs,” Kelso said to The Sacramento Bee.

Changes would be applied in the 11 Northern California prisons, and then expand to eventually covering all 33. State officials hope to enforce the new system throughout all of the prisons over the next two years. 

SAMANTHA BOSIO can be reached at city@theaggie.org.

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