When Milton Vereen got out of jail, he went to a halfway house. The idea was simple. He'd find a job. He'd look for housing. He'd reintegrate into his New Haven neighborhood and cut his ties to prison.
Except one tie was holding him back: his medical care.
The only way Vereen could get treatment was by going back to prison. "It was rough," he said. "I'm outside, in the community, and I'm going back to a facility to get treatment, when I could walk down the street, and go to Yale or St. Raphael, or something like that."
Why couldn't he just walk down the street to his doctor? Because of a federal technically preventing certain parolees from enrolling in Medicaid and getting health care in the community. Now, a $4.3 million allocation to the Department of Social Services could fix that.
"The single biggest issue is: What is your status when you are released from a jail or prison, and you go to a halfway house?" said Robert Trestman, executive director of UConn's Correctional Managed Health Care, which oversees medical services in the state prison systems. He explained the technicality. "If you can walk away from that halfway house, and not be considered an escaped prisoner," he said, "then you're eligible for Medicaid. If, however, your status is such that -- even though you're in a halfway house -- if you walked away from there without permission, you would be considered an absconding prisoner. You are still considered a prisoner, and therefore not eligible for Medicaid."
Below is a map showing correctional facilities in Connecticut. Currently, certain parolees are required to return to prisons or the John Dempsey Hospital in Farmington for medical care.
Take Timothy Thomas: he has asthma, and he's now at a halfway house in New Haven. If he wants treatment, he has to make an appointment to go to the Whalley Avenue Correctional Jail. "The bad thing about that," he said, "is you make an appointment, and you tell them you need to go see them, but you might not get an appointment for a whole month. They're so backed up."
That's where the $4.3 million in state funding comes in. Judy Dowd of the state budget office said the money will let the halfway house population get served by the same state office that handles Medicaid for the entire population.
Since more than 95 percent of Connecticut's inmates are eligible for Medicaid, Dowd said taking paperwork out of the hands of jails means better continuity of care. It also means halfway house parolees will be able to access all the providers in the Medicaid program -- and that means no more going back to jail for treatment.
"They can go to their local community health center, rather than having go back to prison," Dowd said. "We anticipate that people will get care in a more timely way. They won't wait until conditions become emergent. It will get them acclimated into the community and provide them better care and hopefully less expensive care."
Many of those cost savings are downstream: community health care now, to prevent things like recidivism later. "A lot of it has to do with recognition that so much of this is a public health issue, and not just a personal issue," said Trestman. "It has huge impact on populations, and the families and communities from which these folks come, and which they go back to."
Parolee Thomas said any change makes sense. "If you're able to get another type of medical [care]," he said, "you should be able to do it, especially if it's going to benefit you in the long run. This DOC medical is not benefiting me at all. I could only go to Whalley to get seen ...but if I had another way to get some type of medical, I could get seen faster. I'd be better taken care of. [I'm] not saying that DOC is the worst, but it's definitely nowhere near the best either."
State officials said halfway houses should begin implementing the new policy in the spring. It's expected to impact about 3,000 people.