An Unwelcome Dispatch

Zachary Watson/Guardian

STATE NEWS — California’s budget crisis is forcing all sectors of our state to strap on their thinking caps and look for something — anything — to remedy the surmounting debt.

One recent money-saving suggestion came from the University of California’s very own Senior Vice President for Health Sciences and Services, John Stobo. Stobo argued that contracting state-prison health care to the UC system will save the state billions. But even if our university wasn’t already burdened with fewer staff and stretched resources, the proposal isn’t the surefire path to efficiency Stobo has made it out to be.

After the 2001 court case Plata v. Schwarzenegger, a federal judge ruled that state inmates were entitled to better health care, then issued a federal receiver to oversee the progress. While the receiver is supposed to monitor the state’s progress, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger feels that Kelso had overstepped his authority. In March 2009, a federal judge denied Schwarzenegger’s request to terminate Kelso on the grounds that he overstepped his duties by demanding $8 billion to construct new prison hospitals — something the state obviously could not afford. Since then, prison health-care costs skyrocketed from $475 million to $2.4 billion annually.

Stobo’s plan would turn over all prison health-care responsibilities to the UC system and the telemedical company NuPhysicia, which sends a live stream from multiple examination rooms back to one doctor’s webcam headquarters. While it is certainly tempting to trained doctors without ever having to set foot in a hospital, the virtual network would eliminate hundreds of jobs in the process. Instead of having real doctors take inmates’ heartbeats, UC physicians would diagnose them through a sort of advanced Skype for doctors. (YouTube “NuPhysicia” for a better idea of how it works. Pretty weird.)

When NuPhysicia first took off in 2007, Strobo served as a founding chairman of its board of directors. After several allegations that Strobo is in it for personal gain, both the CEO and accountant of NuPhysicia have issued statements assuring the public that Strobo is “not a direct equity holder” of the company. But regardless of whether Strobo will benefit financially from employing NuPhysicia to streamline inmante care, it is undeniable that there is an enormous conflict of interest. NuPhysicia is Stobo’s brainchild — it’s only human to want one’s own brainchild to succeed at every possible turn.

When Schwarzenegger approached the regents about herding prisoners through the UC medical centers, his proposal claimed it could save the state approximately $12 billion over the next decade. But UC Board of Regents Chairman Russell S. Gould is hesitant about jumping into bed with the prison system: “We are going to have to spend a great deal of time to determine how and if the university is going to get involved.”

He’s right to have cold feet. Joining hands with the California prison system will only do harm to the university. Even though Texas’s joint university-prison health-care system boasts one of the lowest costs for prison health care nationally, the University of Texas and Texas Tech University lost $122.1 million to prison health care from 2006 to 2007. Last time we checked (and saw our student fees rise 32 percent), the UC system didn’t have an extra $122.1 million laying around.

Aside from absorbing the costs of 33 state prisons’ health-care needs, the UC system will also pick up the tab for the countless lawsuits filed by dissatisfied inmates, according to Andrew Kahn — an attorney representing the Union of American Physicians and Dentists.

According to California Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse, a statewide grassroots movement, on average, state prisoners file more than two lawsuits every business day — an expense of over $191 million between 2002 and 2008. It doesn’t take an economics degree to realize that now is not the time for the UC system to be taking on any additional responsibilities.

Stobo claims that “a portion of [the state’s] savings could be used for higher education in California” and unless the simple majority thing passes, that’s not likely. At this point, the UC can’t afford to gamble with “coulds” and “maybes.” If we are going to see this plan through, the UC system will need to see legislative affirmation that some of those “savings” will go to us.

While California’s prison system costs $2.4 billion per year — exponentially more than other states­ — turning any duties over to an endangered public education system and a gamble like NuPhysicia is a lose-lose situation.

It’s important to remember that even if UC system does decide to work with NuPhysicia, the prison system would still be under federal receivership, and the receiver is the one who racked up California’s prisoner health-care bill in the first place. NuPhysicia even noted that the plan would only be effective if the courts amend the demands of Plata v. Schwarzenegger to permit virtual health care. Before tasking the UC system with additional responsibilities, Schwarzenegger first needs to either work with the federal receiver or work with the courts to relieve the receiver of his duties. While there is a mandated receivership, the federal government will continue to make decisions that should be left up to the state — therefore continuing to increase the cost of prisoner health care.

Second, increase the efficiency of the outdated pharmaceutical system to save money. According to U.S. Inspector General David R. Shaw, the current prescription tracking system employed by state prisons is so inefficient that inmates’ prescriptions are sometimes still filled for the eight months after they’ve been discharged, pushing expenditures by $3.6 billion past the budget. Although updating the current system won’t be an end-all solution to the prison health-care crisis, a snip here and a trim there will bring us one step closer to resolving our problem.

Health-care employees could also be given a cap for the onetime hours. It’s not uncommon for employees to log 12- to 18-hour shifts a day. While the additional time is great for underpaid state employees, it’s dangerous for health-care workers to be manning shifts for so long, not to mention, and costs the state an additional $60 million a year.

Seeing prison health care, the UC system and NuPhysicia together on a Macbook screen is definitely one virtual house call we don’t want the doctor to be making.

Readers can contact Cheryl Hori at [email protected].