When the inmate of the Buena Vista County Jail showed signs of mental health problems, guards made sure the person got an appointment for psychiatric help. After the inmate was examined at Spencer Mental Health, the person was committed. The sheriff's department got the bill.
With tongue planted firmly in his cheek, Sheriff Chuck Eddy told the County Board of Supervisors this week that if they need medical or mental treatment but can't afford it they should get arrested then the sheriff's department will provide treatment. The joke was not as funny when he said the bill for the prisoner, a resident of Clay County, who was committed was $20,000.
Over the past six months four or five inmates needing mental care have racked up a $40,000 debt for the sheriff's department - and ultimately, the county's taxpayers.
Eddy said he did not budget to pay for inmates' medical treatment in this year's budget, nor in next year's which has already been approved. Most of the people treated are in no position to repay the county and, according to the law, the county has to pay the medical bills and seek reimbursement from the inmate.
"If someone comes in who needs open heart surgery, the county can end up having to pay for it," he said. "I don't think the taxpayers should have to pay for medical expenses for a pre-existing condition that has nothing to do with us."
Eddy has asked for a legal opinion from County Attorney Phil Havens. He hopes to confer with Havens, the board and the county mental health department over who should pay the bills. He believes the county's mental health budget should pay for Buena Vista County residents and inmates from other counties should be charged to their their home county.
According to a new law that takes effect in July, if an inmate has been sentenced to the county jail, they are charged for medical bills as part of their booking fee. People who are in jail awaiting trial are still the responsibility of the county. The jail is required to pay the bills and must seek civil action to be reimbursed by the prisoner.
"If we did that, we would have to have someone working full time to work with civil cases to try and get our money back," Eddy said.
The supervisors worried the cost of treatment may have to come from the county's general fund.
"We will get run over," if that is the case, Supervisor Jim Gustafson said.
Eddy said the jail is setting up procedures that will make it easier to collect medical expenses from inmates, such as making it easier to serve paperwork for civil actions.