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Friday October 20, 2000

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Inmates to chip in for health care

By The Associated Press

WASHINGTON - Federal prison inmates who have money will have to pay part of the cost of their doctor visits under legislation signed by President Clinton.

Thirty-eight states already require such payments for state prisoners, said Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., who sponsored the legislation with Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz.

"At a time when ordinary South Dakota families have to make co-payments, prisoners ought to make co-payments if they have the resources to do so," Johnson said.

Under the law, inmates in federal prison cannot be refused treatment if they don't have any money. But those who can afford it must be charged at least $1 for most doctor visits. The fee will go mostly to pay restitution to crime victims.

The fee is unfair to poor prisoners and will discourage some from seeking medical care, said Kara Gotsch, public policy coordinator for the ACLU's National Prison Project, which presses for better prison conditions.

"If you're talking about people who make 25 cents a day, that is a lot," she said. "They'll have to choose between going to a doctor or paying for toothpaste or shampoo. You're trying to take blood from a stone."

Johnson said the law will cut down on "frivolous" health care.

"In talking with law enforcement in South Dakota, I'm being told that the requests for medical visits were often daily events, where prisoners were looking for a change of scenery and a ride around town," he said. "They would tie up law enforcement and health care staff."

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., added amendments to the legislation that exempted preventive care, prenatal care, substance abuse, mental health, emergency services and contagious diseases from the co-payment requirements.

"I am glad there are those provisions," Gotsch said.

The bill received little opposition in Congress. Clinton signed it last week.