CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia's spending on prisoner health care shot up 38 percent between 2001 and 2008, but the state still ranks 36th out of 44 states included in a recent study by the Pew Charitable Trusts.The Charleston Daily Mail reported that West Virginia's health-care costs rose from $15.7 million to $21.7 million during the period.But many other states reported much sharper increases. New Hampshire, for example, saw a 379 percent increase, from $5.4 million to $25.8 million. California's costs doubled to about $1.98 billion.Researchers identified three main reasons for the nationwide increase in prison health-care costs: growing prison populations, aging prisoners and the overall rise in health-care costs. The number of prisoners 55 or older nationwide increased 94 percent from 2001 to 2008.
"Like older Americans outside prison, older inmates are more likely to have physical and mental illnesses," said Maria Schiff, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts' project. That's forcing some states to increase training requirements for staff, increase medical services or even build special housing units.West Virginia Corrections Commissioner Jim Rubenstein said about 12 percent of West Virginia 6,800 prisoners are 55 or older -- up from 7 percent a decade ago.But he says West Virginia's rising costs are mainly attributable to the growing volume of inmates. Overcrowding of the state's prisons and jails has long been a problem for West Virginia legislators and corrections officials.In 2001, state prisons held 4,106 inmates. By 2008, they held 6,097.With the opening of a new 388-bed facility in Salem, a converted juvenile detention center, Rubenstein said he'll likely have to ask lawmakers for more medical services funding next year.But even as overall costs rose during 2001-08, Rubenstein said per-inmate expenses dropped slightly, by about $200 per inmate, because of collaboration with prison health-care contractor Wexford Health Services.The changes have included limiting hospital trips and treating more problems in the infirmaries, and providing some dental, optical and diagnostic services in the prisons.In Texas, Schiff said prisons have increased their use of medical Internet teleconferencing with sick inmates, saving the state about $780 million between 1994 and 2008.Other states are enrolling prisoners in Medicaid, although the benefits are limited.Medicaid can cover prisoners' costs at nursing homes or hospitals when they are admitted for more than 24 hours, but that gives the state the chance to get at least some reimbursement.