SF jail could become Obamacare signup station

Pay your debt to society and get free health care.

Since October, The City has been using County Jail time as a chance to enroll indigent people in Healthy San Francisco, the program offering health coverage for the uninsured.

And with Medi-Cal eligibility expanded under the Affordable Care Act in January, that experiment is now set to expand.
Currently, inmates are asked upon release if they would like to sign up for health care benefits. Health officials also periodically visit the inmates’ housing pods seeking enrollees.

The Sheriff’s Department would be able to start the enrollment process even sooner if legislation designating the sheriff as the official entity to help inmates sign up for health care is approved today.

The idea is that upon release, the formerly incarcerated would be enrolled and given the ability to see a doctor the second they exit the jail.

Providing health care could also help prevent crime, “especially those suffering from substance abuse disorders and mental illness,” Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi said.

“Decades have proven higher recidivism rates due to the absence of health care for newly released inmates and the formerly incarcerated,” Mirkarimi said.

About 350 former inmates have applied for either Healthy SF or Medi-Cal since the fall, said Ali Riker, the Sheriff’s Department’s director of programs. But the sign-up process is slow and cumbersome, and it involves a separate agency inputting paper forms into a computer.

The process would be streamlined and digitized if the Board of Supervisors approves the plan.

The City offers psychiatric and substance abuse care to inmates via Jail Health Services. Continuing treatment once inmates are released could save money and reduce crime, Riker said.

People with health care are more likely to seek drug and alcohol treatment and less likely to re-offend, she said.

“We want to make sure that care can continue once they’re back in the community,” she said. 

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