HARRISBURG, Pa. – In Pennsylvania, the end of a jail sentence often means the end of health care too, but a change in the state’s Human Services Code could fix that.

Right now, Medicaid is terminated when people are incarcerated and the state or county pays for their medical care. When they’re released, they face at least 45 days without health coverage as they reapply for Medicaid. Antoinette Kraus, director of the Pennsylvania Health Access Network, called changing this an important step forward.

“It really helps folks maintain care and be able to access much-needed medical treatment immediately upon leaving the prison system,” she said.

The bill passed unanimously in the General Assembly and Gov. Tom Wolf has said he supports it.

The federal government has recommended that states suspend rather than terminate prisoners’ Medicaid, allowing coverage to resume immediately when they’re released. According to Kraus, a gap in access to health care can be a huge obstacle.

“It often causes a lapse in treatment or a relapse for folks facing addictions,” she said, “and that often means that they end up right back where they started because they can’t get that treatment.”

She said those with mental-health or substance-abuse issues are especially vulnerable to delays in treatment.

Ultimately, Krause said, she believes the change will not only benefit peoples’ health but also will save the state money.

“They stay out of emergency rooms and using more costly forms of care,” she said, “and over the long run we hope that it’ll keep people from returning to the justice system.”

Pennsylvania is one of only 19 states that terminates Medicaid coverage when people are incarcerated.

The Pennsylvania Human Services Code is online at legis.state.pa.us.

Andrea Sears