BENTONVILLE — The Benton County sheriff’s office no longer will pay some medical bills incurred by inmates in its jail, Sheriff Keith Ferguson told the Quorum Court on Tuesday.
“We’re kind of getting ripped off,” he said.
The new policy took effect Thursday, which is when Ferguson told hospital representatives to bill inmates for medical treatment in situations where inmates had pre-existing conditions before being arrested and brought to the county jail.
Until now, the county has paid all medical and dental work for prisoners.
“We are still going to provide medication,” Ferguson said. “I don’t believe taxpayers should be responsible for exploratory surgeries for any inmate faking symptoms. We shouldn’t have to provide for dental treatment for people who used meth and crack cocaine and destroyed their teeth.”
The sheriff’s office will pay about $ 250, 000 in medical bills in 2005, plus $ 60, 000 for pre- scriptions, Ferguson said.
One recent medical bill from Northwest Medical Center of Benton County totaled $ 22, 205 for what Ferguson said was “essentially an abscessed tooth.” The inmate came into the jail with the problem and ended up spending three days in the hospital. Two days were spent in the intensive-care unit.
The county also is paying $ 1, 100 per prescription for an inmate with AIDS, Ferguson said.
“Taxpayers shouldn’t be responsible,” Ferguson said.
The sheriff ’s office pays $ 125, 000 to $ 150, 000 a year for the medical services of the jail doctor, a nurse and a part-time nurse, the sheriff said.
Ferguson believes that most inmates receive better care in jail than they do while free.
“If an inmate catches a cold or the flu or even suffers a broken jaw or nose while in the jail, then we are totally responsible for the bill,” Ferguson said. “We should pay it.”
Ferguson’s stance is directed at inmates who have medical conditions when they are brought into the jail.
“Some inmates know they have medical problems and are abusing the system,” Ferguson said.
The sheriff’s office has paid hospital bills for the care of pregnant inmates.
“We didn’t get her pregnant,” the sheriff said. “She was pregnant when she came here, and we shouldn’t be responsible for the bills.”
Ferguson expects the new policy to come under attack.
“I’m not saying we won’t get sued over this. We’ll probably get some repercussions, but that’s OK,” Ferguson said. “We’re only a holding facility. We’re not a prison.”
Doug Norwood, a Rogers attorney, said Ferguson is asking for a lawsuit by refusing to pay for medical treatment.
“He doesn’t have a choice. He has to pay the medical bills,” Norwood said. “It won’t be long before somebody calls me, and we’ll take one of those cases to court.”