AUSTIN, Texas (KETK) – Even though Texas’ prison population shrank this decade, the publicly funded costs to treat inmates’ medical conditions continue to rise.
The state spent over $750 million on prison health care during the 2019 fiscal year, a 53% increase from seven years earlier, when that cost was less than $500 million.
The main reason, according to experts and officials: an older, sicker prison population.
While the total prison population declined by 3%, the number of inmates ages 55 and older increased by 65%, according to Texas Department of Criminal Justice data. Inmates over 55 account for about one-eighth of the population but nearly one-half of the system’s hospitalization costs, according to prison officials.
Nearly 150,000 incarcerated people rely on TDCJ to deliver their health care. Officials say the aging prison population and treatments for expensive diseases like hepatitis, HIV and cancer are driving up costs. Medical costs for the 10 most expensive inmates surpassed $3.1 million in 2019, according to a TDCJ document.
Cost-saving measures include telemedicine and access to discounted pharmaceutical drugs through a federal program. But experts say systemic change — like paroling more aging inmates and keeping people with mental illness or substance abuse out of prison — is needed to curtail expenses.
Texans shouldn’t expect costs to come down if the state continues to incarcerate “the same kind of demographics you’re sending to prison now,” said Owen Murray, vice president for the University of Texas Medical Branch’s Correctional Managed Care.
“I think a lot of the low-hanging fruit has already been trimmed,” said Marc Levin, the vice president of criminal justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. “It’s always good to look for other efficiency options, but I do think to some degree, if we don’t address the prison population and medical parole issues, we’re kind of going to be tinkering around the edges, as far as achieving either a cost reduction or even just holding the line.”