(Bloomberg Politics) — Gary Herbert, Utah’s Republican governor, has a health care problem. Under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), states are eligible for federal money to pay for expanding access to Medicaid, the health insurance program for the poor.
Herbert’s spent more than a year pushing Utah’s GOP-controlled legislature to accept the cash, but he’s run into resistance from conservatives opposed to PPACA.
Lately he’s gotten help making his case from an interest group not known for its liberal inclinations: cops.
Police chiefs and sheriffs who run local jails in states that haven’t expanded Medicaid are coming out in favor of PPACA on the grounds that it could help drug addicts and people with mental illness get help before they commit crimes. Thirty states have increased access to Medicaid. Broadening eligibility could extend coverage to about 3.7 million people in 20 states, according to estimates from the Kaiser Family Foundation. That includes 30,000 in Utah, about 1 percent of the state’s population.
Jim Winder, the elected sheriff of Salt Lake County, says 15 percent to 18 percent of the 40,000 people booked each year into the county jail—Utah’s largest—are severely mentally ill, about the same as the national rate. He spends $3 million to $5 million a year on psychotropic medication, out of a budget just shy of $90 million.
Even if inmates have private insurance, the jail picks up the tab for them while they’re locked up. It often takes days or weeks to stabilize them, and many are arrested again soon after release. “I’ve got people who we’re booking 150 times a year,” says Winder, a Democrat serving his third term. “If people think for a moment we’re not paying for this, they are sadly mistaken.”
In March, Utah’s legislature passed a justice reform bill lowering the penalties for drug possession. The law contains provisions for putting addicts in treatment rather than in jail. Law enforcement leaders say that’s a step in the right direction but worry that without additional funding—whether from federal PPACA funds or some other source—there won’t be enough space in rehab programs to accommodate the increased demand.