Help arriving for jailed mentally ill

Written By BY Toni Preckwinkle and John Jay Shannon Posted: 04/18/2014, 06:40pm

More than 92,000 Cook County residents who did not have health insurance a year ago now are covered by CountyCare.

The Cook County Health and Hospitals System created CountyCare to early enroll individuals in Medicaid who are newly eligible — including low-income, single adults without dependent children — under the federal Affordable Care Act. In addition to medical benefits, CountyCare covers mental health and substance abuse treatment.

CountyCare is uniquely positioned to provide coverage to individuals involved in our criminal justice system, because the expanded Medicaid population mirrors the makeup and the needs of a large portion of the people in the Cook County jail.

Based on our experience, roughly 20 percent of the people entering the Cook County jail suffer from mental illness, which often coincides with substance abuse.

CountyCare gives us an opportunity to provide access to healthcare to people being released from jail, which is in the interest of public health and public safety.

We’ve seen firsthand what a study released last week by the Treatment Advocacy Center proved: prisons and jails have become America’s “new asylums.” It found that the number of individuals with serious mental illness in prisons and jails exceeds the number of people in state psychiatric hospitals tenfold. In 44 states the biggest mental health institution is a prison or jail, according to the study. And three facilities — including the Cook County jail — house more inmates with serious mental illness than all the state hospitals in their respective states.

We can provide episodic care at the jail by stabilizing individuals and making sure they get their proper medications. But individuals’ long term needs, especially when it comes to mental health, go far beyond the care we can administer at that facility.

Now, with CountyCare coverage, when people leave the jail we have a way to ensure they have access to health care. Our partners, including Sheriff Tom Dart, the state Medicaid program and the advocacy organization Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities, are all equally committed to the cause.

When we started the program at the jail last April, we focused our screening process on individuals charged with nonviolent offenses who had low bonds. A year later roughly 3,200 of our overall CountyCare enrollment stems from people who applied at the jail.

We know that giving this population an insurance card isn’t enough. They need access to care once they are released and re-enter the community. Our continual goal is to make sure they are linked with a doctor, have access to prescriptions and continue behavioral health counseling and other treatment.

Our hope is that by providing health-care coverage, we will ultimately reduce recidivism. Through CountyCare, we have the potential to change the makeup of the jail population, decrease the burden on local taxpayers, and ensure that the most vulnerable patients have access to coordinated care.

Toni Preckwinkle is president of the Cook County Board. Dr. John Jay Shannon is interim CEO for the Cook County Health and Hospitals System.

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