Pilot program could reduce medical costs for inmates

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The Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office and County Health Department are cooperating on a pilot program that could potentially save the county money and reduce some of the demands placed on detention officers in the County Jail.

Starting in November, County Public Health Nurse Trista Gilmore began working with inmates to reduce the number of times they have to leave the jail for medical reasons.

Undersheriff Brian Griffeth said that while they are still gathering numbers, the jail has already seen a significant decline in the number of prescriptions they are having to pay for over the short period the program has been in pilot.

Gilmore said she has been happy with how receptive the inmates have been to her visits in place of them leaving the jail to go to the hospital for things such as follow-up appointments.

While the perception has been that inmates may have sought the outside appointments in the past as a way to get some time outside the jail, Gilmore said that her experience has made her question how true that was.

“No one wants to walk around in that orange jumpsuit,” she said. “Everybody says it’s a treat for them, but I think it wasn’t as much as we thought.”

County Public Health Manager Jennifer McCully stressed that the program is very preliminary, as is any estimate of cost or time savings so far.

“Is it even worth it? We don’t know that yet,” she said.

In addition, if it is determined to create a savings for the county, McCully said that discussions would still have to be had regarding funding.

While Gilmore is pleased with the program and eager to find ways cooperation between the Sheriff’s Office and Health Department can reap more benefits, she acknowledged that she already has a full plate of responsibilities.

Undersheriff Brian Griffeth said that, in the long term, he would like to see success with the program lead to the creation of a new position.

“What I’d like to see in the future is that it grows to a point where it is saving enough money and costs that it can pay for a part time jail nurse,” he said.

Gilmore and McCully said that such a position is not uncommon in other counties, even those with small populations such as Lincoln County.

Gilmore said that she is still learning all the ins and outs of the penal system, such as the differences between procedures for county and Montana Department of Corrections prisoners.

She is also still exploring what all she will be able to do — both logistically and legally.

Currently, inmates sign forms that permit her to interact with primary care providers and pharmacists on their behalf.

However, each time she still has to go to the jail and have the inmate brought out of their cell to convey information one-on-one. Gilmore said she would like to find if it is possible to convey some information to them without it being as much of a production.

She is also working with facilities such as Sunburst to determine what mental health evaluations can be done over video, which would cut down on transportation outside of the county for that purpose, and allow for inmates to be evaluated and when they are clearheaded and focused.

Griffeth said that he is tracking not just costs such as prescriptions, but man hours — some transports have at times required pulling in additional personnel and paying overtime — to see what the total savings to the county are.

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