Inmates at the county jail may soon have to pitch in on the cost of their healthcare.

Sheriff Doug Vantlin on Tuesday sought the county council's blessing for the implementation of a co-pay program for inmates at the Knox County Jail, something he says is already in place at several other jails across the state.

Currently, the cost of inmate healthcare — which the county is obligated to provide — is a heavy burden to bear. In a typical year, it costs the county nearly $500,000.

“So the sheriff has brought to us this idea, one used widely already all over the state,” said council president Bob Lechner to his fellow members as they gathered at City Hall, 201 Vigo St. “One of our biggest line items is healthcare for inmates — we spend hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars each year for medical attention.

“And I think this could help.”

This new program, Vantlin explained, essentially charges inmates a small co-pay every time they want to seek medical treatment. For a visit to a doctor or nurse, the charge would be $10.

For any prescriptions issued to them as a result of that visit, there would be an additional $5 co-pay.

The money would come from an inmate's commissary, or the fund into which friends and family can deposit money for food and items not provided by the jail, things like candy bars, soda, tea, etc.

“So if they sign up for a medical visit, $10 would come out of their commissary fund,” Vantlin explained.

And he hopes, at least in some cases, the co-pay serves as a deterrent to inmates seeking unnecessary medical care.

“If they have to choose between going to a nurse for a minor thing — something like a runny nose or a hang nail — or that Snickers bar,” Vantlin said, to which the council chuckled, “they're probably going to have that Snickers bar.”

Lechner was careful to clarify that no inmate would be denied — or even discouraged to seek — medical care.

But he agreed that a bit of a deterrent isn't a bad idea.

“Anyone who has spent any time inside a jail will know that inmates would rather spend time anywhere other than (their cells),” Lechner said. “If they can get out, get a ride to the doctor or go see the nurse, very often those kinds of abuses on the system take place because we have to treat them regardless of the situation.

“This will give them a little skin — or a Snickers — in the game,” he said.

Vantlin, too, said jailers are being trained to be sure they aren't negligent in recognizing when an inmate might need medical care but is avoiding seeking it due to the additional cost.

“We don't want anyone who is having a heart attack or some other issue not seek treatment because they'd rather have a stick of gum,” he said.

“But we do think this will drive down our costs and put a bit of money back into that line item as well.”

And in the event an inmate doesn't have any money in his or her commissary fund, they'll be taken to see a nurse or doctor regardless.

However, under this potential new program, the jail reserves the right to take the co-pay out of any deposit made into the commissary within 30 days of the physician's visit.

“Everything will continue as normal,” Vantlin said. “We'll just be using a different procedure.”

The co-pay program doesn't actually require official approval from the county council, although members did all express favor with it. Vantlin simply wanted to keep them abreast of the coming change, he said.

An ordinance, he said, has been drafted for approval by the county commissioners, the county's legislative body.

The commissioners next meet at 6 p.m. on Tuesday at the Knox County Courthouse.

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