Pima County is considering a new method of cutting the cost of health care for inmates at the jail, using the theory that proper health care can prevent people from repeat arrests, and therefore reduce jail costs.

The county jail is the detention center for people arrested in Pima County jurisdictions such as Tucson, Oro Valley, and unincorporated areas. The county is also obligated to provide health care to inmates in the jail while they’re there, also with juveniles in the juvenile detention center, said Chuck Huckelberry, Pima County administrator.

“Combined, we spend probably in the order of $12 million a year in providing health care to inmates in the adult system, which is the county jail, as well as juveniles in the juvenile detention facility,” he said.

The jail can be partially reimbursed by insurance companies or AHCCCS, the state's Medicaid program, but the reimbursement is a small portion of the expense, about $300,000 a year, he said.

If the county can get inmates on health insurance, it could reduce recidivism rates, he said.

“We release anywhere from 70 to 100 individuals from the jail each day and most of those don’t have health insurance,” he said. “We need to get them enrolled in the Affordable Care Act or some form of health care so that they can actually provide medications for themselves and very often those medications keep people from returning to the jail.”

Huckelberry said there is a high population of inmates with behavioral health issues that could be controlled with medication. They may get medication while they're in jail, but without health insurance, "the moment they leave the jail they have no access to the medications, and we see they come right back to the jail.”

“We think that if we could get those inmates enrolled in health care, get them proper health care attention, medicated either on the behavioral health side, or just the physical side of their issues, that they’re less likely to actually return to the jail environment,” he said.

“What we’ll save in the long term, just simply the booking cost and one day in the jail costs over $350,” plus ongoing operating and maintenance costs, he said.

Huckelberry said he wants to change the jail and health care system so eventually people are required to have health insurance through the Affordable Care Act or AHCCCS.

“We are looking at pilot programs now to get people to enroll these inmates as they are discharged,” through non-profits at the jail, or having enrollment applied as a condition of release."