Indiana law is clear: Counties must reimburse medical providers for treating jail inmates.
Sheriff Ken Fries has rightly drawn attention to the growing financial burden this places on taxpayers, and its hard to disagree with him when he says, I dont believe inmates should be getting better health care than what the public does. But the law is the law, and it applies not just to the sheriff but to all county government.
The County Council – as much as some members may want to – cannot simply vote not to pay for medical care of inmates whose ailments existed before being incarcerated.
Council members want Fries to cut $1.4 million from his proposed budget for 2013. Fries said he will eliminate the $400,000 he needs for inmate medical care by simply not providing it. Im not willing to pay it any more, he told Indianas NewsCenter, and if the hospitals want to sue us over it, then well go to court.
Fries is hopeful state legislators will address this statewide issue, which is affecting a number of counties. The medical bills particularly hit county jails that hold methamphetamine addicts, who often have numerous health problems.
He is right. The General Assembly should not simply expect counties to pick up this burden. But deliberately breaking the law is no answer, particularly for the elected official responsible for law enforcement.
Fries will make his case to the County Council today. He has already cut $400,000 for new squad cars plus additional money for overtime as well as officers clothing allowance.
Council members need to examine county priorities closely. Council members previously told Fries to consider reducing the number of sheriffs deputies and jail confinement officers as well as requiring officers to pay for take-home cars. Already, few officers patrol the large expanse of the county the sheriffs department must serve. Calling off-duty officers to emergency calls in remote areas is one way the sheriffs department can respond quickly, making take-home cars for sheriffs deputies more important than for other county employees.
The sheriff is also right to question how the county could afford to spend $1.4 million in 2010 for shovel-ready economic development sites. But the countys fiscal stewards are now telling the sheriff to consider reducing the number of officers.
The council should at least consider using a portion of the countys rainy day savings to help supplement the sheriffs budget. But taking the medical care bill off the books will not make the responsibility go away, and refusing the follow the law should not be an option.