Funding standoff leaves prisoner health care hanging

October 18, 2011 4:35:43 PM PDT
A standoff over state funds could lead to changes in who is responsible for treating sick or injured prison inmates. Currently, most of those inmates are taken to the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. But now UTMB and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice are at odds over money.

It's an impasse that is pitting two giant state agencies against one another. At stake is patient care for Texas prison inmates, and it involves money.

If you go by population of Texas prisons, it's one and a half times the size of Waco, spread among more than 100 prisons across the state. There are nearly 160,000 inmates, from white collar offenders to serial killers, and inevitably, they need medical care.

Most of those with chronic or critical illnesses are taken to UTMB in Galveston, a state hospital that wants more money to treat inmates, either in prison clinics or in the hospital.

This year the legislature cut the prison medical budget from $933 million for the fiscal year to about $860 million and that's started the funding standoff between UTMB and the Department of Criminal Justice. State Senator John Whitmire has been through these showdowns before.

"It has huge potential problems because you're talking about 158,000 people that you have to provide healthcare for," he said.

UTMB notified TDCJ last week that unless the state makes up the shortfall, it wants to present a transition plan for when its contract expires on Halloween. But meetings continue.

According to Whitmire, UT wants to get out of its clinical duties at the prisons, but retain inmate emergency care at UTMB which brings in money.

"But you don't want to go out into the rural 112 locations -- that's unacceptable," Whitmire said. "So we're kind of stalled out in the discussion."

Stalled in the discussion, but those discussions do continue for the rest of the week in Austin. The deadline is October 31.

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