La. floats inmate health plan

The Jindal administration told legislators Thursday that it is mulling over the possibility of buying private health insurance for the state’s 40,000 prison inmates.

“We believe this is certainly an alternative,” state Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc said after briefing members of the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget.

Exactly what the cost would be is unclear.

LeBlanc said Alabama pays nearly $3 a day per inmate for a private medical plan.

In a prepared statement, Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols said, “We’re looking at a variety of options. We’re in the early stages of reviewing different ideas that save taxpayer dollars and provide the same level of care.”

Public Service Commission Chairman Foster Campbell, who owns an insurance company in Bossier City, said later in the day that a number of questions would have to be answered, including whether elderly and chronically ill inmates would be able to get coverage. “None of it’s that cheap,” Campbell said of buying insurance.

State Sen. Francis Thompson, D-Delhi, said his concern is that insurance companies would exclude inmates with health issues such as diabetes or smoking-related illnesses. “My fear is that it would just be for certain classifications,” Thompson said.

In the Baton Rouge area, state officials are grappling with how to provide health care to prisoners once the LSU Earl K. Long Medical Center closes. Inpatient care for the unincarcerated and medical education programs will move to Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center off Essen Lane, but the hospital did not agree to care for prisoners.

LeBlanc told legislators that purchasing insurance through Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana would allow inmates to seek treatment at any hospital on the insurance company’s provider list.

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana already is slated to begin managing the health plans of thousands of current and retired state workers in January. The company stands to receive $37.8 million a year to serve as administrator of health plans currently handled by state employees at the Office of Group Benefits.

The state Office of Group Benefits provides health and life insurance to about a quarter-million current and retired state employees and their dependents.

LeBlanc said giving Blue Cross more business volume might lower rates for state employees.

He said he plans to sit down Friday with LSU, the Office of Group Benefits, the state Department of Health and Hospitals and the Division of Administration to continue fleshing out the idea.

“I really believe this is something that could happen,” LeBlanc said.

LSU System President William Jenkins said he did not know details to discuss the issue. Jenkins referred questions to LSU system Executive Vice President Dr. Frank Opelka.

“I have not been party to any specifics surrounding an insurance program for inmates,” Opelka wrote in an email Thursday.

Alabama recently signed a three-year contract for $224.7 million with Corizon to provide health care to 25,000 inmates in that state. The state has a separate contract for mental health services.

LeBlanc said he envisions setting up clinics within the prison walls. Insurance, he said, would help pick up the cost of sending doctors to the clinics. He said a number of details need to be addressed, including nailing down how much inmate care currently costs the LSU public hospital system.

During the budget meeting, state Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, urged LeBlanc to develop benchmarks that will make it easier for legislators to grade how well prisons are handling taxpayer dollars.

“If we’re going to hold teachers to a standard, Lord, we ought to be able to hold some of these facilities to a standard,” Claitor said.

LeBlanc said state prisons are expensive compared to local prisons because of inmates with mental health or medical issues, high profiles and age-related problems.

He said he measures success by the number of escapes and the level of inmate-on-inmate violence.

Koran Addo of the Capitol News Bureau contributed to this report.