Legislative Victory: Healthcare Coverage for People Leaving Prison

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Lorrayne Patterson-Greene, active member in the CA’s Coalition for Women Prisoners and re-entry specialist at Postgraduate Center for Mental Health, recounted for The New York Times how she had to visit the emergency room in order to get blood pressure pills after she was released from state prison: “I was really scared,” she told the reporter. “It increased my stress level, not having access to my medication.” The article, “In New State Law, a Wait-Free Return to Medicaid Rolls After Prison,” reports on the passage of a bill that requires New York State to suspend Medicaid for people entering prison or jail. Lorrayne’s story was one of several personal experiences highlighted by the Times to underline the serious need for such legislation.

The CA’s Women in Prison Project (WIPP) and Prison Visiting Project (PVP) played a leading role in moving the bill during this year’s legislative session, and Governor Eliot Spitzer signed it into law in July. We congratulate and thank the numerous community partners and organizations, including the Coalition for Women Prisoners, New York City Mayor’s Office, New York City Department of Correction, and Legal Action Center, who worked to ensure that this important policy was enacted.

Under previous policy, New York State terminated Medicaid for individuals entering prison or jail, leaving them with little or no access to healthcare coverage for months after their release. From a public health perspective, the failure to provide medical coverage for an eligible population with high rates of serious and chronic illness made little sense.

Although the suspension law constitutes a significant step forward, it does not address the whole problem: many individuals who are Medicaid-eligible enter prison without prior enrollment and fall outside the bounds of the new suspension law. Incarcerated individuals are not allowed to file Medicaid applications on their own behalf; without staff assistance, they must wait until release to begin the process, which can take 45 to 90 days. Many will still go through the same difficulties as they wait for coverage. WIPP and PVP are working with state agencies and other organizations to ensure that Medicaid applications are filed for all eligible incarcerated people, regardless of whether they entered prison with coverage. Providing “facilitated enrollment” for people in New York’s prisons would enhance the state’s ability to promote public health and safety, reduce recidivism, and save funds on emergency care.