Sheriff Considers Challenge Of "Pre-Existing" Inmate Medical Costs

By Jeff Neumeyer

August 16, 2012 Updated Aug 16, 2012 at 5:26 PM EDT

ALLEN COUNTY, Ind. (Indiana's NewsCenter) --- Health care costs are a burden for most of us.

But are some Allen County jail inmates committing crimes just so they can get access to free medical care?

The sheriff believes it’s possible, and he's so frustrated about it, he's considering a legal challenge to try and stop it.

Sheriff Ken Fries says just this week an inmate being punished for a crime wanted to make sure he didn't get sentenced right away, so he could maintain health care benefits that he can't get on the street.

" Instead of getting sentenced in 30 days, he's getting sentenced at 45 days, so he's going to get health care for an extra 15 days. They know it, they're getting treatment for free," Fries says.

The Sheriff went before county council Thursday, seeking $400,000 to cover unbudgeted jail medical expenses.

Council gave him $100,000.

" We'll have to see next month where money is available from, and figure out how to cover it," said Larry Brown, Allen County Council President.

In the last few years, the Sheriff's Department has come up short of cash in paying for medical costs at the jail.

It's normally between $200,000 and $400,000 annually.

This year, the Sheriff says the shortfall could be as much as $800,000.

Part of the problem is that under a recent law change, county taxpayers have to pick up the tab for all inmate medical bills, including any pre-existing conditions.

What if prisoners who need kidney dialysis or a heart transplant-- and have no insurance to pay for it-- see the jail as their best option for affordable treatment?

" There's something wrong systematically with our process, if someone, one person, chooses to end up in jail for medical care," said Republican council member Tom Harris.

Sheriff Fries is contemplating a lawsuit to enforce a 1997 court ruling that he believes could overturn the law change and take county taxpayers off the hook for pre-existing conditions.

" It's not spelled out in black and white that we have to pay for those, and if we go back and base that on that '97 court ruling, I think that we're okay to not pay the bills," said Fries.

The Sheriff acknowledges that hospitals will put up stiff opposition to such a change, and he concedes they are a powerful lobbying force at the State Capitol.

In any scenario, the sick must be treated and the bill will somehow trickle down to taxpayers and insured patients.

But the outcome in this fight could determine if an old adage is really true, that crime doesn't pay.

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