Until this year, if prison inmates in Virginia needed to see a nurse or a doctor for anything other than an emergency, the state charged them a $5 copay — a modest amount in the context of ballooning health care costs nationwide but a huge sum behind bars, where most inmates are paid between 27 and 45 cents an hour for work assignments.
The Department of Corrections suspended the policy on Jan. 1 without announcement or fanfare, instituting what officials described as a pilot program to see how things go without the copay.
The General Assembly is considering legislation to make the policy permanent.
“They’re no different that the general population,” said Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, who proposed the legislation. “If they can’t afford a copay they’re not going to get access to health care and health problems will get worse and worse.
“Coupled with what inmates are getting paid for the work they do – think about how much you would need to work to earn the $5 for a copay.”
The quality of health care within Virginia’s prison system has been under intense scrutiny following allegations of inadequate care and a string of deaths at Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women, which is under the supervision of a federal judge.
Inmates at the facility have expressed frustration about the copay requirement and say that even when they pay it can take weeks or months to see a doctor, making people reluctant to spend the money.
The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.