UC Regents consider takeover of California prison health care

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Correctional officers stand watch over an inmate receiving treatment in the emergency room at California State Prison, Corcoran, in Corcoran, Calif., Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2009. A federal court-appointed receiver says the state needs to pay $8 billion to upgrade prison's medical and mental health care.

The University of California Board of Regents meets in San Francisco this week. Today, the regents will consider a proposal to take over health care in California’s prisons.

The Schwarzenegger administration has pushed hard to convince the UC to sign on to the plan — and there’s more than a little interest on the university’s part.

A court-appointed receiver is in charge of prison health care in California. The receiver got the job because a federal judge decided the state’s prison system couldn’t provide inmates adequate care. Under the proposal, the University of California would take that over. As well as take over dental and psychiatric care.

The Schwarzenegger administration modeled the plan on Texas, where the University of Texas took over prison care in the 1990s.

"It resulted in a level of health care that was exceedingly high quality and that was very cost effective" said Dr. John Stobo, who was the president of the University of Texas Medical Branch at the time. Today, Stobo heads the University of California’s Health Sciences and Services. That makes him the perfect pitchman to sell the UC Board of Regents on a UC takeover of prison health care.

Dr. Stobo hopes to convince the regents, and the public, that managing prison medical care fits the UC’s mission. He says "As a public trust, it has a responsibility to address important needs in society. In the health components of the University of California, that means addressing the health needs of Californians — particularly the underserved in California. And the incarcerated in California are a medically underserved population."

The Schwarzenegger administration estimates the state would save $15 billion over the next decade if the UC managed prison health care. Dr. Stobo says he’s negotiating to get the UC a cut of those savings.

"There would have to be some arrangement," Stobo said, "by which UC could be assured that it would continue to benefit from the savings that accrued to the state."

But prison medical expert Ron Shanksy says it’ll be tough to sell the idea to the UC Regents. A few years ago, Shanksy worked for the Department of Corrections to improve prison health care. He says the state tried to enlist the UC before, "They were approached and it was very toe in the water response."

Shansky says back then, the UC administrators hadn’t bought into the mission of providing quality care to inmates. And he says no private university could do the job.

"No university within the state is ready to jump into it either because of interest or because of available leadership talent." Shanksy explained. He said the universities need people who not only know how to manage health care systems, but also know how to do that inside prisons. Shanksy also suggested, "There’s got to be a lot more discussion with existing programs to get a better understanding of what the pitfalls are."

Shansky says one of the pitfalls in California is getting any change past the unions for prison employees. He says they would surely fight the part of the UC proposal to scale back prison medical staff.

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