Heres a message for Allen County Council members:
You can pay later, but you will more likely cost taxpayers less money by paying now.
Council members were understandably upset at Sheriff Ken Fries request for $400,000 – on top of the $1.1 million already budgeted – to pay medical bills for jail inmates. But the decision to give Fries just $100,000 was shortsighted because the county has no choice under state law other than to pay the bills.
Running the jail is by far the most expensive – and arguably most important – of the sheriffs duties, and he cant simply cut staff and hope for the best.
The council should not have been surprised, because Fries has been sounding the warning about medical costs. He and other Indiana sheriffs argued against a 2009 state law that made jails responsible for treating inmates pre-existing conditions. Council members also claimed the county has no money left, but it is expected to end the year with a surplus and, regardless, is sitting on a rainy day fund of nearly $12 million.
If the sheriffs department doesnt pay the bills, the providers will come collecting. If the county continues to resist, providers will obtain judgments ordering the county to follow the law. Any dime the county spends to fight collection will be a dime that is wasted.
While the council needs to appropriate money to solve the immediate problem, longer-term solutions are needed. Jails should not be health care providers. The county will very likely need to rethink its contract with a local medical practice to administer health care. Medicaid might be a partial solution. The question surrounding the jail also applies to the nations health care system – when a patient doesnt pay, everyone else does, in taxes or in higher bills.
County officials need to work with legislators and other counties to seek a long-term way to pay for inmates health bills. For now, though, the bill is due, and the county – right or wrong – has to pay it.