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Merkley bill makes sense

A bill introduced by Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley makes sense, and would go a long way toward reducing the cost to Jackson County taxpayers of operating the county jail.

As it stands now, federal rules say anyone lodged in while awaiting trial loses federally funded health coverage after a few days. Often those lodged are covered by the Oregon Health Plan, primarily funded with Medicaid dollars. Others are covered by Medicare or veterans’ benefits.

When the coverage ends, the county must pick up the cost of any health treatment those prisoners need. That includes psychiatric medication, diabetes treatment and drugs used to ease the symptoms of opioid withdrawal.

Besides the disruption in coverage and the cost burden to the county, the existing policy means those prisoners must reapply for coverage after they are released, resulting in delays and increased administrative costs to the Oregon Health Plan.

One of the goals of the county’s proposed new jail is to offer drug abuse treatment and mental health counseling inside the new facility. If the county did not have to pay for that treatment, it would save considerable expense to local taxpayers.

Merkley points out that half of those awaiting trial have serious health conditions. It makes sense to treat them, and to continue their coverage rather than forcing local governments to pick up the tab.

Under our system of justice, those charged with crimes are considered innocent until proven guilty. It makes no sense to punish them before conviction by taking away their health coverage.