Pennsylvania prisons were reporting hundreds of new COVID cases a day last winter, when Michael Traupman and his cellmate at State Correctional Institution (SCI) Frackville discovered their food had suddenly lost its taste. Two days before, someone in the cell next door tested positive for the coronavirus. Then, “a couple other people on the block were saying they felt achy and miserable,” Michael recalls. “And same thing, they couldn’t smell or taste. "The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections had waived the $5 copay it charges for medical visits for people in custody reporting symptoms like these. But Michael says that policy wasn’t always honored at Frackville. He went to the medical department on two other occasions when he felt sick with something like a flu, where he got little help and was hit with the $5 charge. Experiences like these discouraged many people at Frackville from coming forward when they felt ill, Michael says. "Me and some others just basically decided we're better off just toughing it out on our own,” he says. Stories like Michael’s show how prison medical copays impede access to health care even when it’s desperately needed. During a viral pandemic, this has consequences for public health beyond prison walls. When copays make it harder for prisons to identify and isolate people who are infected, it’s not just other incarcerated people who are put at risk. Correctional facilities have been shown to be viral incubators that fuel the spread of COVID-19 in surrounding communities .After hearing reports like Michael’s, the DOC suspended copays for all medical visits, not just those for people with possible COVID-19 symptoms. But recently, the department reverted back to the old policy, even as hundreds of people who live and work in prisons continue to become infected with the coronavirus. Medical copays have always compromised the health of incarcerated people, even when there wasn’t a pandemic raging. Five dollars for a medical visit is a barrier for incarcerated people, who depend on their families and meager prison wages for what little money they have. In Pennsylvania, prison jobs pay between $0.19 and $0.51 an hour. And the cost of a doctor visit is just the beginning; prescription and over-the-counter medications come with an additional $5 charge. Incarcerated people already have to stretch their scant earnings to cover phone calls home, toiletries, extra clothes and blankets, and supplemental food from the commissary. As a result of the copays, people are forced to choose between having money for the daily costs of prison living and taking care of their health. Anthony Lewis worked as a janitor in the prison kitchen making $0.42 an hour. One day on the job, he slipped and fell as he drained vats of scalding hot water. After his burns from the accident went away, he developed chronic sciatic nerve pain that he attributes to the fall. He made numerous trips to the prison medical department, where he says he was often treated with disrespect and received treatments that didn’t do much to resolve his pain. "My back was killing me so bad that I’d be in tears,” Anthony says. But the copays for the medical visits took a big chunk out of his minimal income. Sometimes, he just decided, “I’ll deal with it,” when the pain got really bad. “I can’t keep going to medical and giving them money for something they’re not going to help me out with anyway,” Anthony remembers thinking. It’s time to end a policy that puts basic health care out of reach for people in prisons and jeopardizes public health. The Prison Society is partnering with FAMM to work to permanently eliminate the medical copay in state prisons, and lawmakers have taken the first step of putting forward legislation to do so.
Help FAMM and the Pennsylvania Prison Society seize this opportunity to act. Take action and send a message to your state lawmakers and the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections telling them to get rid of the $5 medical copay in Pennsylvania state prisons for good!