AUSTIN (AP) – Proposed cuts to the health care provided to Texas prisoners could make the system unconstitutionally inadequate, experts warned lawmakers Monday.
The Legislature has reduced funding for prison health care, prompting providers to cut clinic hours, vaccinations and spending on medical equipment while not raising employee salaries to keep up with the private sector, experts told the Senate Finance committee. The Texas prison service currently incarcerates 158,000 people.
Gov. Rick Perry last month asked state agencies to prepare budget proposals to cut spending by an additional 10 percent next year. Dr. Denise Deshields, the health director of Texas Tech University’s prison health care system, said the new cut could lead to an unconstitutionally low level of care.
“I don’t know how we would possibly handle an additional 10 percent reduction in appropriations. We are really cut down to the bone as it is,” she said.
The vice president for offender health services at the University of Texas Medical Branch, Dr. Owen Murray, said that because of staffing cuts guards are now expected to help make medical decisions that nurses and doctors once made.
Lawmakers expressed concern that the state could face lawsuits if it does not provide adequate care to the prisoners. California’s prison health care system was declared unconstitutional and is under federal receivership. California now spends about $13,300 per prisoner, compared to the more than $3,100 spent by Texas.
The Texas committee is exploring new ways of providing and paying for prisoner health care.
The state is considering contracting with private companies to provide the health care and looking into whether the state can collect federal funds to help pay for it. University medical programs and state funds currently are used for inmate health care.
Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, pointed out that the state is spending millions of dollars each year on terminally ill, bedridden inmates who pose no threat to society. He recommended passing legislation that would allow the release of those prisoners so they would be eligible for federal Medicaid funding for their health care.
Texas lawmakers are holding hearings on a variety of topics to be ready in January, when the Legislature will meet again and begin passing laws.
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