Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we have called for the elimination of the $5 medical co-pay charged to people in state prisons each time they seek medical care. State officials and elected representatives are now starting to hear our call. In the past few weeks, they’ve made progress towards eliminating this barrier to health care behind bars for good.
We must seize this opportunity. The pandemic has shown how co-pays jeopardize the health of incarcerated people, prison staff and the surrounding community, while doing nothing to reduce costs to taxpayers.
DOC suspension of co-pays gives legislators an opportunity to act
On May 26th, Pennsylvania Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel suspended medical co-pays indefinitely, acknowledging that the policy has deterred people in custody who are possibly sick with COVID-19 from seeking care.
“We have heard of incarcerated people who would not report their symptoms to staff for fear of not being able to pay the $5 medical co-pay,” Wetzel said in announcing the suspension.
The indefinite suspension and Wetzel’s past comments on the issue signal that the Department of Corrections is open to eliminating the co-pay policy altogether. But because the co-pays are required under state law, the state legislature needs to act to make the change permanent. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have already announced intentions to do so. Democratic State Representative Amen Brown of Philadelphia announced this week that he would introduce legislation to permanently eliminate the $5 co-pay for prison medical care. Earlier, Republican State Senator and Prison Society Board Member Camera Bartolotta applauded Wetzel’s decision to suspend the co-pay.
“From all angles, the smartest option is to permanently eliminate medical co-pays for people who are incarcerated,” Bartolotta said.
The $5 co-pay raises the cost of care and jeopardizes public health
Five dollars might not seem like much to most of us, but for incarcerated people it is often prohibitively expensive. Prison jobs pay between $0.19 and $0.42 per hour in Pennsylvania, a meager income they already use for necessities like toiletries, over the counter medicine, shoes and phone calls. Relative to earnings, the $5 co-pay for incarcerated people is equivalent to around $300 for someone making an annual salary of $50,000.
When going to the doctor means running out of money to call home or buy other essentials, some incarcerated people end up deferring care until a minor health problem turns into something more serious. This raises health care costs in the long run, leaving the prisons with more complicated and expensive ailments to treat. But in the case of a viral infection like COVID-19, it also jeopardizes public health. When incarcerated people hide their symptoms to avoid paying the co-pay, a virus has more time to spread to other people in custody and staff, who ultimately carry it into the community.
The Prison Society calls on state lawmakers to pass legislation that eliminates the medical co-pay for good. Watch for more updates in the coming months as we monitor legislative developments and dig deeper into why removing this health care barrier is, as Senator Bartolotta said, “the smartest option.”
We also once again call on all state and county officials to: