Senate bill boosts addiction treatment, Medicaid coverage for prisoners before release

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    A bipartisan bill to be introduced Wednesday would allow prisoners to get addiction treatment covered by Medicaid starting 30 days before their release from jail or prison.

    The bipartisan measure, coauthored by Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), would create an exception to a federal law that bars virtually all federal health coverage for prisoners. Joining Baldwin in sponsoring the Medicaid Reentry Act are Sens. Mike Braun (R-Ind.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio). Parallel legislation is also being introduced in the House of Representatives.

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    The legislation is in part a response to continuing opioid and substance abuse, as well as to the added challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic has produced in preventing and treating addiction and providing recovery.

    “This problem is harshly affecting incarcerated individuals who are working to reenter society, but currently lack the health care coverage they need to continue their recovery,” Baldwin stated. Providing coverage through Medicaid or other health plans, she said, would allow them “to seamlessly transition back to community care and reduce the risk of overdose deaths post-release.”

    The legislation would allow incarcerated people who are eligible for Medicaid to get coverage 30 days before their release date, and help them more easily return to Medicaid coverage. It would also help states more easily coordinate the necessary addiction treatment and other health services for individuals soon to be released, according to a statement from Baldwin’s office.

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    Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley and Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney have both endorsed the legislation.

    “The COVID-19 pandemic has magnified the unique vulnerabilities individuals facing substance use disorder face upon release,” Crowley stated. Emergency Medical Service (EMS) calls for overdoses increased 108% in Milwaukee County in December 2020, compared with the previous year, according to Crowley, with 40% of calls coming from Black residents.

    “The Medicaid Reentry Act is an important piece of legislation that can save lives through continued coverage of effective addiction treatment options for individuals reentering the community,” Crowley said.

    Mahoney said the legislation, by strengthening ongoing health care for people scheduled for release, “will reduce recidivism and therefore ease budgetary burdens” on county jail systems.

    Senior Reporter Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, along with related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. Off hours he is the Examiner's resident Springsteen and Jackson Browne fanboy and model railroad nerd.