By Carly Kempler| December 31, 2019 at 5:18 PM EST – Updated January 1 at 7:46 AM
CHARLOTTESVILLE, V.A. (WVIR) – Prison healthcare in Virginia is a problem. Costs have gone up more than $100 million in the last 10 years.
The Virginia Department of Corrections (DOC) is looking to partner with the University of Virginia to provide better care to inmates and keep drug costs low.
In 2019 the General Assembly asked the Virginia Department of Corrections to team up with the UVA and VCU health systems.
“The General Assembly was likely looking for increased access to care for offenders. We have a lot of offsite appointments for specialists; being associated with the university like UVA could increase the retention of staff,” Chief Pharmacist at the DOC and Assistant Director of Health Services Trey Fuller said.
It comes after the state has seen rising costs and an increasingly older inmate population.
“The reality is now that we have no parole. Our inmate populations getting older, healthcare demands their needs are increasing and we just simply have to find a better way to provide for that care,” Creigh Deeds
According to a report from the Virginia House Appropriations Committee, prison health spending has nearly doubled from $120 million in 2007 to $230 million in 2019.
“It is frustrating, you know, particularly when you’re competing for dollars when we’ve got we’ve got to improve our educational program. We’ve got needs in our state parks,” Deeds said.
Supporters believe the partnership between the DOC and UVA will be three-fold: boost healthcare access, bring prescription drug costs down, and help with recruitment.
I absolutely think it will increase access to health care and access to highly qualified healthcare professionals, which is something we struggle with. People don’t come out of medical school and nursing school thinking I’m going to work in a prison,” Fuller said.
“Those positions are always going to be hard to fill and we have to, in my view, we have to figure out a better way to make those jobs desirable,” Deeds said.
Shannon Ellis is an attorney with the legal aid justice center. She’s spent years working on prisoner healthcare, specifically at Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women.
“It was built in the 90s with the idea that it was going to be almost a prison hospital,” Ellis said.
Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women is one of two prisons chosen as a pilot site for the proposed partnership with UVA.
We’re glad to hear that DOC is exploring greater partnerships with UVA, we’ve actually been urging that for years,” Ellis said.
That site, in particular, has a long legal history with the Legal Aid Justice Center. Just this year, several deaths at Fluvanna raised serious concerns for advocates.
“While some certainly were expected from women who were very ill, others have concerning circumstances that and were not expected,” Ellis said. “We’re talking about things like desperately needed medications not being available, lack of basic medical equipment like wheelchairs.”
For now, individuals from both health systems and the DOC are hoping to improve care but are still planning what the program will actually look like.
“Both the universities UVA VCU and DOC agreed that we needed a little time to figure out what that looks like. So we proposed some interim strategies,” Fuller said.
That could include UVA providing treatment for hepatitis C patients in Fluvanna.
Governor Northam’s proposed 2020 budget designates about $12 million spread across 2 years to go towards those interim strategies. The General Assembly and several committees will review the comprehensive partnership plan during its upcoming session and decide whether or not to fund it.
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