'Obscene amount' spent on healthcare

Last updated 05:00 28/01/2014

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Prisoners clocked up more than $24 million in healthcare costs for the 2012/13 year, nearly $750,000 up on the year before.

It was a decline of nearly $2 million from the 2010/11 year. However, that can be attributed to the closing of two prisons - Wellington Prison in November 2012 and New Plymouth Prison in March 2013.

That's left an unsurprising prison population drop from 19,670 in 2011/12 to 19,250 in 2012/13.

But the spend has left some commentators outraged knowing that offenders would get immediate access to care while many of their victims are forced to wait a number of years.

However, one Hamilton lawyer said it's helped his client learn to walk again.

The three main financial burdens for healthcare at Waikato prisons were services by doctors, dentists and getting prescription medicine.

In the 2012/13 year, Waikeria prisoners clocked up $269,911 worth of doctor appointments, while at Spring Hill, prescription medicine was the biggest burden at $182,180.

Dentistry was on top of Tongariro/Rangipo Prison's bill at $136,824.

But Bronwyn Donaldson, Department of Corrections director of offender health, said it had a statutory obligation to provide a primary healthcare service to prisoners that is reasonably equivalent to that found in the community.

The department needed prisoners in a healthy condition so they could fully partake in rehabilitation programmes, education and employment training.

"Prisoners who are referred for specialist services, including hospital care, are treated like anyone in the community; they have to meet the same criteria and wait the same length of time," she said.

"It's difficult to directly compare prisoner health spending with that of PHOs (Primary Health Organisations). Prison health centres also deal with a wider range of health care (such as emergencies), nurses are available on call 24 hours a day, and health centres deliver prescription medication daily to thousands of patients. It's like comparing apples and oranges."

Donaldson said prisoners were not able to enrol in a PHO so they were not eligible for subsidies.

A 2012 regional public health report said this had led to ballooning costs for the prisons. For example, it cost 400 per cent more to treat prisoners than for patients through a PHO.

Sensible Sentencing Trust spokeswoman Ruth Money said it seemed like a blatant double-up, with many offenders probably already enrolled in a PHO.

"You've got to question the charge-out rate and what the taxpayers are paying for these predators because it doesn't feel like that's value for money."

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Donaldson worked it out at $331 per prisoner per year. However, that was excluding staffing and administration costs which pushed the figure to $1288.

"It's an obscene amount to pay," Money said.

"I've got a victim of rape and sexual violation from eight years ago, and she's only just had her hip replaced and organs repaired after [what she went through]. But I bet the prisoner got assessed straight away."

Senior Hamilton lawyer Roger Laybourn said there were a myriad of issues around prisoner healthcare, but in one case, he couldn't fault the service provided for his client James Samuels, who is beginning to walk again after being shot by police and left paralysed after a high speed chase around Waihi in January 2008.

"He's very happy with the standard of care that he's had to the extent that he can now stand and has limited walking abilities."

However, Laybourn said he has had feedback from older prisoners who weren't getting the medication they needed because prison staff thought they were making their symptoms up.

Then there was the "minefield" of treatment required by mental health patients.

"Over the 30-odd years that I have been practising, somebody with mental health was a rarity. Now it's extremely commonplace."

- Correction: An earlier version of this story listed the costs as being up nearly $1m on the year before. This was incorrect.

- Waikato Times

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