Seward Highway accident boosts Corrections budget

Posted: Tuesday, January 28, 2003

JUNEAU -- The state Department of Corrections may need up to $1.2 million extra this year to cover medical costs from a Seward Highway accident, in which five people were killed and four were injured.

''Several of those prisoners were injured severely, and we're incurring dramatic health care costs associated with them,'' Corrections Commissioner Marc Antrim said at a recent legislative hearing.

The department estimates it will spend $900,000 to $1.2 million on medical costs for three of the injured who were Department of Corrections inmates. That is only for the cost of medical care, not for any potential lawsuits.

Four inmates and a correctional officer were killed Nov. 19, when a tractor-trailer truck crossed the center line on the Seward Highway and smashed into a van that was transporting the prisoners to Seward. Three inmates and another correctional officer were injured.

Portia Parker, assistant commissioner of Corrections, said she could not release information on what the inmates' injuries were. One is still hospitalized, she said, while one is back in prison and the third has been released from prison.

The department's cost for the inmates' medical care is high because federal law does not allow it to recoup any costs from Medicaid, Medicare or Indian Health Service, Parker said.

''It's just a huge cost to this department,'' she said.

The department's budget for medical care has climbed from $14.5 million in the 1995 fiscal year to $19.1 million in the current fiscal year that ends in June, Parker said. That doesn't include the estimated $1 million for the Seward Highway accident.

Along with an overall high rate of inflation in medical costs, the department is also dealing with older prisoners serving longer sentences and expensive illnesses such as hepatitis C, diabetes, kidney disease requiring dialysis and cardiac illness, said Jerry Burnett, the director of administrative services.

The department is looking for ways to control health care costs. That may include moving inmates with serious, ongoing health problems, such as a need for dialysis, to cities where high-quality care can be provided for less cost, Parker said.

The department can seek reimbursement for medical costs if an inmate is covered by private insurance, but in the past inmates have not been asked whether they have insurance. The department has recently begun doing so when prisoners enter the system, Burnett said.

No one has been charged yet in the Seward Highway accident, Alaska State Troopers spokesman Greg Wilkinson said. The troopers have not yet finished their report on the incident.

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