A guard tower at the Pontiac Correctional Center in Pontiac, Illinois. Starting in 2020 prisoners will no longer be charged a $5.00 copay when they visit a prison doctor.
Illinois prisoners will no longer have to pay a $5 copay to see a doctor behind bars starting in January. The change is the result of a law passed this year that advocates say will encourage prisoners to seek health care before problems get too serious, or expensive.
The $5 copay was a significant barrier to inmates seeking care said Jennifer Vollen-Katz, executive director of the John Howard Association, an Illinois prison watchdog group.
Vollen-Katz said that $5 can be a lot for prisoners, who receive only $10 a month in something called state pay.
"That $10 is used to buy basic sanitation items, hygiene items [and] stationary so you can write letters to family members. A lot of things that are really basic necessities. And for $5 to have to go to medical care is a real deterrent," Vollen-Katz said.
In a survey of prisoners conducted by the John Howard Association, about 70% said they'd avoided medical care because of the copay.
"It's possible that things that might have been prevented or stopped early become much more serious medical issues that require more time and frankly more money to treat," Vollen-Katz said.
Access to medical care is not only important for the individual prisoner, but for anyone who works or lives in the tight confines of a prison, where contagious illnesses can spread quickly.
The $5 copays have been just one piece of the prison health care system that's been under scrutiny in Illinois. Earlier this year, an independent expert found one-third of the deaths he reviewed were preventable. That report documented egregious medical errors and a system with little accountability or oversight. Since the release of that report, Illinois made a legally binding agreement, called a consent decree, to overhaul its prison health care system.
Shannon Heffernan is a criminal justice reporter at WBEZ. Follow her at @shannon_h