Medical Debt From In-Prison Injuries Is Chasing Inmates After Release
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Now to Arizona, where prison inmates are being charged for medical procedures that should be paid for by the state. And many don't know about the charges until debt collectors come calling. As Jimmy Jenkins of member station KJZZ reports, the unpaid bills are damaging credit and making it more difficult for former inmates to start over after they've been released.
JIMMY JENKINS, BYLINE: Ashley Wilkeyson and her friends were happy to be outside. It was a beautiful day for softball at the Perryville women's prison in Goodyear, Ariz. Wilkeyson had just taken her place as shortstop when she heard the crack of the bat.
ASHLEY WILKEYSON: It was a grounder. I went down to go get it, tossed it to second. And then...
JENKINS: She heard another loud crack.
WILKEYSON: I guess misfooting or something - I don't even know.
JENKINS: She had broken her ankle - snapped it almost entirely in half. The prison sent Wilkeyson to the hospital, where they took X-rays, reset her bones and scheduled her for surgery.
WILKEYSON: And then they sent me back to the prison.
JENKINS: And that's when the bills started coming.
WILKEYSON: I called my grandma one day, and she was like, I just want you to know that we received a bill for about $2,907. It was almost three grand.
JENKINS: Wilkeyson is one of more than a dozen current and former inmates who say they are being erroneously charged for medical treatment performed while they were incarcerated in an Arizona prison. Inmates aren't supposed to pay for their health care in Arizona. They pay $4 to be seen by the health care provider for their first visit, and all services after that are performed, contracted and paid for by Corizon Health.
RITA LOMIO: The state pays Corizon almost $200 million to provide these health care services.
JENKINS: Rita Lomio is an attorney with the Prison Law Office. She represents the health care concerns of men and women in Arizona prisons in a separate class-action settlement.
LOMIO: There's no one who's really helping them. There's no one who's taking care of it. And we want to try to do what we can, but it's not, you know, really squarely part of the case or part of any case.
JENKINS: Keith Jones is a representative for one of the Arizona hospitals that contracts with Corizon. He says the bills inmates are receiving are actually coming from individual doctors, not the hospital.
KEITH JONES: There's independent service providers, like emergency physicians, that have separate agreements with third-party health plans.
JENKINS: Corizon contracts with the hospital. The hospital contracts with doctors. And doctors contract with billing services. So it's difficult to find out where exactly the process is breaking down. After KJZZ inquired about Wilkeyson's bill, the hospital says it asked the service providers to review the way claims are handled.
Rita Lomio is worried the bills will have devastating consequences for her clients as they try to rebuild their lives.
LOMIO: Undeserved bad credit due to a state contractor's failure to pay its bills only makes it harder to find housing and gain full employment and to support a family.
JENKINS: Lomio says she has collected inmate medical bills totaling more than $50,000. She says despite sending multiple letters to Corizon attorneys, the Prison Law Office has had little success getting the bills resolved. A spokesperson for Corizon said when the company is notified of unpaid medical services, it resolves them immediately. But a year after her release from prison, Ashley Wilkeyson is still fighting bills she doesn't owe.
WILKEYSON: I feel like I'm just banging my head up against a brick wall at this point, you know, because I keep getting the runaround. Like, oh, you need to reach out to this person. Oh, you need to reach out to this person. And I've gotten nowhere.
JENKINS: And the collection notices keep coming. For NPR News, I'm Jimmy Jenkins in Phoenix.
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