The War on Drugs has been a significant contributor to the overcrowding of America’s prisons. According to an infographic released on the Federal Bureau of Prisons website, 46.5% of the prison population are there for drug offenses. Of that population, more than half have no history of violence at all on their record.
There has been an increasing push to divert low-level drug offenders into programs that will help them beat their addiction and out of the prison system. One way that some cities are doing so is through funding from a previously untapped resource: The Affordable Health Care Act.
In a recent article that was published in U.S. News and World Report, President Obama’s healthcare plan has expanded Medicaid in some states, and this has made repeat drug offenders eligible for coverage–including many who are homeless or mentally ill and have never been covered under any kind of insurance.
According to the article, low-income adults with no children living at home were largely shut out of Medicaid funding. Under provisions of the ACA, Medicaid was expanded to cover people who were making up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, or nearly $16,400 for a single person. 31 states plus Washington, D.C. have taken advantage of these new provisions
The idea of tapping into Obamacare to help fund diversion programs could make the joint federal and state health insurance program for the poor an effective tool to help shift those who are struggling with substance abuse and addiction out of the criminal-justice system.
One city–Albany, New York–is utilizing this tool to full advantage. The city is using this new funding source to create a program that is similar to the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program in Seattle. Instituted in 2011, LEAD is a nationally recognized diversion program that aims to keep people out of prison by focusing on those who use a disproportionate share of public resources by repeatedly getting arrested or seeking care at emergency rooms.
Instead of booking addicts in jail, the police make contact with program employees who meet with the offenders and try to enlist them in social services. These services can include getting them a pair of shoes or a bus pass, buying them groceries until they obtain food stamps,providing short-term housing, or helping pay utility bills or even college classes.
Following a summit last summer at the White House regarding Seattle’s LEAD program, dozens of cities are considering whether to follow suit. Albany has just begun their pilot program while cities such as Baltimore, Atlanta and Fayetteville, North Carolina, are expected to launch similar programs next year.
While the use of Medicaid funding to create this diversion programs has become increasingly popular, Medicaid expansion has also met with resistance and 19 states have rejected this expansion. One state that has rejected Medicaid expansion in Georgia, and that has put additional pressure on healthcare and social advocacy organizations in Atlanta who are planning to launch a LEAD program next year.
Instead of using Medicaid funding, the Atlanta program is trying to arrange funding for the program through a combination of county, private and possibly federal money as well as a $200,000 grant from billionaire George Soros’ Open Society Institute, which has provided similar LEAD startup grants to several other cities.