As outbreaks of COVID-19 continue to strike Pennsylvania prisons, the Department of Corrections has chosen to reinstate a policy that undermines public health.
As of Monday, state prisons are once again charging people in custody a $5 copay for medical visits.
The DOC suspended the fees across the board in February in an effort to mitigate the threat of COVID-19. This came after a Prison Society survey revealed that, even though copays had already been waived for people with flu-like illnesses, the fees were still deterring some people in custody from reporting their symptoms. Former corrections secretary John Wetzel later extended the suspension indefinitely, citing the discretion the department has to waive copays in the interest of public health. The pandemic, Wetzel said, had “not been eradicated.”
That remains the case. Three state correctional institutions (SCIs) currently have outbreaks of COVID-19 infecting 20 or more people in custody, including one at SCI Benner Township in which 50 have tested positive. Overall, 144 people in custody and 137 staff in the state prison system have active infections. In addition, the DOC last week reported its first death of an incarcerated person from COVID-19 since July.
Nevertheless, the new acting corrections secretary, George Little, declared it was time to reinstate medical copays in a step “back to our new normal.” Little made an exception for flu-like symptoms, but that only returns to the policy that our survey found could hamper efforts to contain COVID-19. While it is true that the high vaccination rate among people in DOC custody helps protect them, the recent outbreaks prove that vaccinations alone aren’t enough to stop the spread of the virus in such a crowded congregate setting. And more than half of the department’s correctional staff (53%) have still not been vaccinated. That vulnerability makes corrections officers a potential vector carrying the virus into prisons and accelerating community spread when they bring the virus home with them.
The pandemic has laid bare the inextricable links between prison health and community health, but these links have always existed. That’s why ending the medical copay is not just about equity for incarcerated people--it is also critical to public health, especially during this ongoing crisis. The Prison Society strongly disagrees with the DOC’s reversal on copay waivers, and urges the department to reconsider. But because the copays are written into state law, permanently eliminating them requires a legislative solution.
The Prison Society once again calls on state legislators to pass HB 1753, a bill that would eliminate medical copays in state prisons for good. It is now more urgent than ever that they do so.
Stay tuned for an upcoming update about our campaign in support of the bill.
In addition, we once again call on all state and county officials to: