Hospital bills add up with Nebraska's aging prison population

Published: Nov. 1, 2016 at 9:47 PM CDT
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From fights against staff and a lack of prison workers to miscalculated sentences, riots and escapes, Nebraska Corrections has been in crisis mode for a few years. There’s another issue facing the state – an elderly prison population that continues to grow and get more expensive.

While it seems we see a news release from Corrections weekly regarding an inmate assaulting staff members, the numbers highlight the big increases.

In 2013, the state reported 78 assaults. In 2014 – 93 assaults. In 2015 - 143. And this year, there have been 142 through August and we’re in November. The state is well on record pace.

“It goes above the call of duty to ask people to work in an environment that’s unsafe,” said Danielle Conrad with ACLU of Nebraska, who has been watching as the state couldn’t hire enough corrections officers.

It’s a domino effect – because of a lack of guards – it’s impacting medical decisions.

The Inspector General for Corrections highlighted one example recently with a photo. It was a stack of papers – more than 300 approved medical consults at the Nebraska State Penitentiary. Each piece of paper represents an inmate who needs to leave the facility for a doctor’s assessment or surgery – but they are staying put. There aren’t enough guards to escort the inmates, so only four leave each day for a consult.

Experts wonder if they’ll ever catch up.

“It is challenging for sure to try to recruit and retain individuals in a system that’s under pressure, said Nebraska State Senator Kate Bolz, who has been working to fix the mess.

She understands that in an unsafe environment with dozens of vacant positions, it’s even more difficult to address behavioral and mental health issues. “It’s hard to calibrate success when you aren’t sure who to turn to and aren’t clear what you’re trying to achieve.”

WOWT 6 News filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act to find out what types of surgeries are occurring with inmates.

From C-sections – 21 of them in the last three years – to biopsies and toe amputations along with a host of medical problems were included in the spreadsheet.

Our investigation showed taxpayers spent $2.1-million a year for inmate surgeries at local hospitals.

But when we wanted more specifics, such as why an inmate would need a breast implant – and did it really cost $36,000 for an inmate to detox from alcohol, we didn’t get answers.

Corrections officials told us it’s to protect inmate privacy.

The most common procedures we identified in our investigation: knee and hip replacements.

27 inmates have new hips or knees at a cost of $800,000.

Reporter: “A lot of people cannot afford hip surgery and they take offense when someone in prison gets one. Should they be offended?”

Danielle Conrad with the ACLU: “I can definitely understand the frustration. The constitution is very clear that the state, the taxpayer to provide basic medical care for those who are incarcerated.”

Experts believe it’s only going to get more expensive.

More than 30-years ago – 5% of Nebraska inmates were 50-and-older.

Today it’s 18%.

It’s an aging prison population with growing health care bills paid by the taxpayer.

Recently -- the Corrections Department has cut costs by having in-house dialysis and chemotherapy.

As for approving surgeries -- we're told the medical director takes into account what the standard of care is in the community when making a decision.