Regents explore role UC might play in prison health care

A newly created UC regents committee is exploring what role UC might play in prison health care.

"We're beginning our process," said Regent Sherry Lansing Thursday, May 20, at the first meeting of the Committee on Health Care in California State Prisons, which she chairs. "We are committed to looking at this in a very thorough way. We're not going to drag it out. On the other hand, we're not going to rush it."

California's prison health care system, which costs $2.4 billion a year, is under federal receivership. The governor and state lawmakers are seeking to provide better care, reduce costs and end the receivership.

The state released an independent assessment in March that recommends a solution: Have the state partner with UC academic medical centers provide integrated prison health care. Given the issue's complexity, regents formed a special committee to consider what, if any, role UC might play in prison health care.

During a public comment period, leaders of the Union of American Physicians and Dentists, which represents 800 doctors who provide prison health care in California, urged UC not to take over California's prison health care system, questioning proposed cost savings and quality improvements and warning that UC would face a slew of lawsuits. Instead, they suggested UC consider other, less intrusive alternatives such as an advisory or consulting role.

It is important for UC to look at those other options, said Dr. John Stobo, UC senior vice president for health sciences and services.

"We do very much want to help," Stobo said. "We need to proceed with caution."

Regent Norman Pattiz said he has concerns about liability and other issues. He urged regents to keep an open mind on the issue, but he said he remained "very skeptical."

At the governor's request, UC leaders have participated in discussions with state officials and health care company NuPhysicia about the assessment, but no agreements have yet been reached.

The assessment by NuPhysicia calls for UC Health to manage California's prison health care services. Similar arrangements have shown successes in Georgia, New Jersey and Texas. California, with 161,000 prisoners, spends $41.25 a day on health care for each inmate, compared with $15.84 in New Jersey, $10.25 in Georgia and $9.67 in Texas (University of Texas Medical Branch), according to the NuPhysicia report.

If California undertakes the reforms in the assessment, it could save $4.3 billion in the first five years and $12 billion to $16 billion over 10 years, the report estimates.

UC Health, which includes five academic medical centers and 16 professional schools, already provides some telemedicine services to state prisoners and plays a vital role in California's medical safety net. Forty percent of UC patients are uninsured or covered by Medi-Cal.

In November, UC extended its commitment to those in need by agreeing to work with Los Angeles County to reopen Martin Luther King Jr. Hospital in underserved south Los Angeles in late 2012.

"Part of UC's mission is to serve the underserved," Lansing said. "If there is the potential to save the state money and for UC to get money (through involvement in prison health care), we have an obligation to look at it."