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Inside Cook County Jail, where inmates get Obamacare

Monday, March 02, 2015
by Elissa Curtis and Suzy Khimm

A growing number of jails are enrolling inmates in Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion in hopes of reducing recidivism and health-care costs.

They’re trying to reach individuals like Trinidad Sanchez, 33, said who said he committed crimes in the past just to get mental-health treatment.

“Every time I ran out of medication, I just went and bought a gun, and I got caught with it,” says Sanchez, who started hearing voices when he was he was a young boy. When he left jail, however, he’d only get standard three months’ supply of medication, prompting him to start the cycle of crime all over again.

Having spent nearly half his life in jail or prison, Sanchez is now in the process of signing up through CountyCare with the help of Thresholds, a mental health services provider he found through his probation officer. “Then I ain’t got to worry about going to jail to get my medicine,” says Sanchez, who’s never had health insurance as an adult.

RELATED: Jails are signing up inmates for Obamacare

Chicago’s Cook County was one of the first places in the country to enroll residents in the Medicaid expansion through the criminal justice system. It’s now joined by counties in California, Connecticut, Oregon, and other states that have chosen to expand Medicaid through Obamacare.

Natrik Washington, who got out of Cook County Jail in late 2013, has reaped some of the benefits of being insured. Washington, 43, was hospitalized after his last stay time in jail for a suicide attempt and enrolled in Illinois’s Medicaid expansion last year.

“There’s nothing worse than not being able to get the medication you need,” he said.

Washington, who said he’s been chronically homeless since 2003, had stolen some Tylenol and deodorant from Walgreen’s to sell in order to fund his heroin and cocaine habit. Now he says he’s been sober for a year—the longest time he’s been clean in more than a decade—and can pick up his anti-depressants at an ordinary pharmacy.

“I’m feeling a little better mentally, so I don’t think I’ll relapse and have another suicide attempt now. I feel a little stronger mentally since I don’t get high. I’m learning to be patient,” says Washington, who now sees a psychiatrist regularly and goes to group counseling sessions at Heartland Health Outreach, which serves low-income and homeless residents in Chicago.

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