Minn. corrections costs rise as prison population ages

11:38 AM, May 2, 2013   |    comments
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FARIBAULT, Minn. -- The Minnesota Department of Corrections is dealing with an aging prison population and with that comes concern over rising health care costs.

The state's largest correctional facility sits on the southern end of the medium-sized southern Minnesota city of Faribault.

Within the walls of the medium-security prison sits a 10-bed area called the Linden Unit. It's home to dozens of elderly prisoners who have significant medical needs.

"I think when people think about prison, they don't think about 86-year-old men," explained Nola Karow, RN, the prison's Health Services Administration.

 "Our population, just like the population in the community, is aging. And yes, our health care costs are rising, just like everybody else," said Nan Larson, Minnesota Department of Corrections Director of Health Services.

Larson's Department, like those in every state across the country, is looking for a way to deal with the increased elderly prison population. Over the last 15 years, the state's "over 55 years of age" population has increased 289 percent. Between 2007 and 2010, the overall prison population in Minnesota increased .7 percent while the 65 plus population went up 63 percent.

"It's really a tough balance for us to try to figure out. How do we contain our costs when we continue to get our aging population?" Larson asked.

Even inmates in the Linden Unit empathize. Richard Meech, 77, keeps busy by fixing the facility's 90 plus wheelchairs. Convicted of homicide in 1988, Meech has had two knees and a hip replaced since he's been in prison. He has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, heart disease and he's been rushed to the hospital by ambulance twice, once for a bleeding ulcer.

"It's pretty expensive out there. I've been down here for many years and the cost went sky high since I've been here," Meech said when asked about health care costs.

The daily room rate at a hospital for an inmate, including routine care, costs the state about $5,000. The Department of Corrections is doing all it can to keep offenders out of the hospital, administrators say. They're bringing more medical services inside the walls and they work with an independent health care contractor, which they say, saves the state millions each year.

"If we can provide more care on site, we automatically eliminate the cost on the transportation and security side, so we do lots of looking at what we provide onsite," Larson said.

Within the Linden Unit, there is also a big push to keep inmates active. It is simply explained as preventative care.

"Keeping offenders healthier, keeping offenders stronger, getting them to walk, getting them to eat right, to exercise, diet and sleep," is how Administrator Karow explains it.

She says making sure the offenders don't fall also keeps offenders safe and keeps health care costs down.

We asked longtime inmate George Griller about the cost of care.

"It has to be phenomenal," he replied.

Griller says he's refused a costly, but needed spinal fusion and he's also refused to take prescription medication. An inmate of 17 years serving a lengthy murder sentence, he says he tries to stay active by helping younger inmates with the mental health aspects of incarceration. He often tells them "the health care in prison is far better than anything they were receiving on the outside."

It's a tough sentence for the Department of Corrections. It's not easy providing the mandated community-standard of health care to an increasingly larger elderly prison population as health care costs skyrocket.

Minnesota corrections officials explain it could be worse. Wisconsin, which has a comparable overall state population, has a significantly larger prison population. Minnesota houses roughly 9,500 inmates at an annual cost of $395 million. Wisconsin is home to more than 23,000 inmates and the state's annual corrections budget is around $874 million per year.

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