Federal health officials signed off on California's plan to enroll eligible inmates in prisons, jails and juvenile detention centers in Medicaid to aid in their reentry, a first for the safety net program, the Washington Post reports. California's plan is to cover certain care for those inmates three months before their release. At least a dozen other states are seeking similar federal approvals. Vikki Wachino, executive director of the Health and Reentry Project and a former official with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid services, called the centers' decision "groundbreaking." She wrote in an email, “It overcomes a major, longstanding barrier that has stood in the way of low income people getting health care when they need it.”
Federal law prohibits Medicaid from paying for most health services for people who are incarcerated, a policy that’s known as the “inmate exclusion.” Insurance coverage plays a limited role in correctional health, and governments are required to provide those in jails and prisons with health services. The newly approved coverage in California includes substance use disorder treatment, physical and behavioral health consultations, laboratory and radiology services, and medications. The California plan is a pilot due to expire at the end of 2026, though it could be renewed. Top California health officials say it’ll take time to ramp up, estimating that the new project will begin in the first jails in April 2024 and phase in over the next two years. A brief by the Health and Reentry Project of the Council on Criminal Justice described how changes in Medicaid policy could help prevent overdose deaths.