Health care for jail inmates cost Hernando County taxpayers about $170,000 last year.
Since October, inmate medical services have cost $35,000.
But the people doing time pay nary a dime.
That may change April 1, when Hernando County Jail officials hope to start charging inmates a nominal fee for prescription drugs, dental work and other medical services.
County commissioners are expected to consider and possibly approve a proposal sometime in March.
Each time an inmate receives inpatient hospital care, it comes at an average cost of $900, said Connie Flesch of the county's Purchasing Department.
"There's no way an inmate will pay all of that if they're indigent," Flesch said. "We're recommending about $75, like a co-payment. It makes them responsible for their health care, but it isn't ridiculous."
Inmates receive money in a commissary account for cigarettes and candy. That account also could be the source for medical payments, Flesch said. If the account ran dry, a lien could be assessed against the inmate that would have to be paid over time.
The concept is similar to public defender liens, assessed against indigent defendants who cannot afford a lawyer and have one appointed for them at no immediate charge. They are expected to repay a token amount after their case has been resolved.
The details still need work. Flesch and jail administrator L.
T. Brown are working together on the proposal. A report should be in commissioners' hands by week's end. Already, however, the idea has some support.
"I think it's a fantastic idea," commission Chairwoman June Ester said. "I like it primarily because we're not the reason that those people are in there. If they weren't in there and had the same illness or toothache, they'd have to pay for it. So why should they expect taxpayers to pay when they're in jail?"
Larry Davis, the jail's assistant administrator, said the proposal is in response to a growing trend among jails and prisons nationwide. Taxpayers have made it clear they dislike criminals getting free medical care, Davis said.
State Sen. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Spring Hill, has proposed legislation that would require an inmate to repay after release at least part of any medical bills incurred while in a county jail. She was encouraged by efforts in Hernando and Pasco counties.
The Central Pasco Detention Center in Land O'Lakes has had a similar program for about two months.
"It's been working well," said Joanne Carr, medical director at the Pasco jail. "Surprisingly, we have not had that many complaints from the inmates."
It costs inmates $7 to see a doctor in Pasco. Laboratory work costs $4. X-rays are $10. Prescription drugs cost what the facility pays for them, plus $3.25 for handling.
If an inmate wants to see his or her own doctor or asks for a specialist, it costs $37 for transportation and security. However, the inmate must make arrangements with someone else to pay the medical bill.
Mental health counseling and prescribed psychotropic drugs are free, Carr said. So is treatment for AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases.
"Our philosophy is whether they're an inmate or not, whether they've been sentenced or not, they have the responsibility for medical care just like you or I would," Flesch said. "We recognize they'll never pay as high as it is for you and me, but they should pay something."