SALT LAKE CITY — A Utah Senate committee Wednesday approved a series of steps to help county jails give released inmates a “warm handoff” back into society with immediate access to substance addiction treatment and mental health services.
Under House Bill 38, the Utah Department of Health would apply for a federal Medicaid waiver to make jail inmates eligible for Medicaid coverage 30 days before release, allowing them uninterrupted access to addiction and mental health treatment.
If a waiver is established, “Now you have a warm handoff to a rehab center outside of jail,” said Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, the bill sponsor. “That’s a spot where we lose a lot of prisoners. We want to get them back to being contributing members of society.”
The bill is a product of a two-year study of jail lethality. That research stemmed from a legislative response to an unprecedented wave of 27 jail deaths in Utah in 2016, including six in the Davis County Jail.
Evan Done, community outreach coordinator for the nonprofit Utah Support Advocates for Recovery Awareness, said he is a former addict who knows first-hand the dangers of relapse.
Inmates with substance use disorders are especially vulnerable if they leave jail without support, he said.
“Continuity is critical,” Done told the Senate Business and Labor Committee. “It reduces reoffending and a higher risk for relapse and overdose. It will prevent and reduce overdose deaths.”
HB 38 also directs the launch of a pilot program to offer mental health screening to jails via a tele-health application.
Cache County Sheriff Chad Jensen said tele-health would be a boon especially to rural jails but also in larger counties where trained mental health screeners are not readily available.
Further, the bill establishes refundable tax credits for medical workers who take jobs in jails.
“We have a dearth of qualified mental health care workers” to work in corrections during the tight labor market, said Darcy Goddard, a deputy Salt Lake County district attorney who headed the lethality study task force.
If the credits prompted even 50 workers to join corrections health care, “that would be a sea of change,” Goddard said.
HB 38 next goes to the full Senate, where Sen. Allen Christensen, R-North Ogden, is the floor sponsor. The House passed the bill Jan. 31 on a 43-27 vote.