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Hartford - Connecticut's sickest state prison inmates will be released and moved to a nursing home early next year in an effort that state officials say will save millions of dollars in health care costs.
As part of its wide-ranging state budget legislation signed into law in June, state lawmakers gave Correction Commissioner Leo Arnone the discretion to release severely incapacitated inmates from custody for "palliative and end-of-life" care.
Opponents of the plan had expressed concern about potentially violent inmates being placed in public nursing homes.
But department spokesman Brian Garnett says the inmates will be going to a nursing home that will be used solely by forensic patients of the state Departments of Correction, Social Services, Mental Health and Addiction Services and Public Health.
The inmates involved are either physically or mentally incapacitated, are not a danger to the public and will be going to a facility that is specifically designed to deal with them, Garnett said.
"These are people in comas, these are people with severe dementia, these are paraplegics," Garnett said. "We have a person without any hands and without any feet because of diabetes, who is taking up an extremely expensive prison bed and could perhaps be better handled in a nursing-home environment."
Garnett said they will be overseen by parole officers, and if any of them recover to the point where they can again be incarcerated, they can be returned to prison.
The cost of care will be about $50,000 annually per inmate, according to state officials. The initiative is expected to result in a 50 percent reimbursement for services that the state is currently paying for on its own in prison infirmaries.
About three dozen inmates on average are being housed in the prison system who would likely qualify for release into a nursing home, Garnett said. Those on death row and others facing sentences that include no possibility of release would not be eligible, he said.
The inmates who would be eligible are currently cared for in hospice or medical wings at the state's prisons. Garnett said those beds and resources can be better used for the health care of other inmates.
Maureen Price-Boreland, the executive director of Community Partners in Action, a private agency that assists prisoners, said the move also seems like the humane thing to do.
"I think our system struggles a lot with what society considers appropriate punishment," she said. "In many cases prison may not be the appropriate setting for these people, and the prisons are not properly equipped to provide the care they require."
Mike Lawlor, the undersecretary for criminal justice for the governor's budget office, said moving these inmates out of prison also will save the state millions of dollars and allow their care to be covered in part by federal Medicaid funds.
He said it's something more and more states are doing as prison populations age.
"There is a specific exclusion in Medicaid for federal reimbursement for people who are incarcerated," Lawlor said. "So it's really expensive. It gets in the way of prisons doing business and to the Connecticut taxpayers, keeping them in prison doubles the cost."
The state spent about $92 million in the 2010 fiscal year on medical costs for prisoners, or about $4,780 per inmate, according to the University of Connecticut's Correctional Managed Health Care report.
Data from United States Bureau of Justice Statistics put the number of inmates in the United States age 65 or older at 26,200 in 2010, which was up 65 percent from 2007. Connecticut has about 16,800 inmates in the system and 328 of them were over the age of 60 as of January, according to state statistics.
Garnett said an outside facility also would solve the problem of what to do with some inmates who have medical needs but have no family and no place to go when their sentences expire.
"There are times when we have no other choice when we are discharging from our facility then to take a person to an emergency room because we have no other place to take them," he said. "That is certainly not the best solution for them and not the best solution for the state of Connecticut."
The state has not yet decided where the home will be located. Garnett said a vendor has been identified, but he would not release the name of that company because it's in negotiations for the contract. The nursing home will be a facility that is already licensed and will be converted for state use, he said.
He said the state hopes to have it open by February.