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A New Era in Healthcare for the Formerly Incarcerated


By: Brittany Claybrooks

Thursday, June 25, 2015, was one for the books. Not only was it the day the Affordable Care Act’s tax credits, which make health insurance more affordable, were upheld by the Supreme Court, but it was also the same day I visited the Loudoun County Adult Detention Center for their annual Community Resource Fair.  It was especially emotional for me; it was the first time I visited inmates that I have not also called mom or dad. But thistime around, I had a whole lot more to offer than a few tears and a handmade greeting card – a ritual that I had become all too familiar with.

More than 10 million people cycle in and out of correctional facilities and more than a quarter of them are younger adults. So it really was no surprise that at least every other person I spoke with was under age 30. The young people I worked with that day were transitioning back into society after serving their time – many were seeking assistance in finding work or job training so that they could build a better life for themselves and their families. Others were seeking help with securing housing, settling up on child support repayment, or probation. What they weren’t expecting to hear was that they could be eligible for affordable health coverage upon their release.

Along with turning 26, graduating from college, moving, changing jobs, and a few other life-changing events, being released from incarceration could enable a person seeking health insurance to enroll any time throughout the year thanks to what is known as a Special Enrollment Period (or SEP).  Upon release, former inmates have 60 days to apply for coverage on or on their state’s health insurance exchange. While this is exciting news, there are still many barriers that recently incarcerated individuals face when affording new coverage.

The sad reality is that those who have “served time” will inevitably face difficulties trying to find a job, making it harder to afford health insurance coverage. For folks who do find a job or participate in Work Release Programs and earn a wage, many might qualify for employer-sponsored coverage or be eligible for lower-cost plans thanks to the ACA’s automatic premium tax credits.

The good news for (many) of our low-income neighbors – like many of those transitioning out of incarceration – the Affordable Care Act has made it possible for people earning under roughly $15,000 a year to qualify for Medicaid, a state administered health program serving those just above or in poverty. And the best part about Medicaid is that individuals have the option of applying prior to being released, meaning they can have health coverage as soon as they are released!

Unfortunately, however, as of right now, 21 states are refusing go along with the ACA’s Medicaid expansion. So what does this mean? All too often, poor residents in these states tend to fall in “the coverage gap,” where a person earns too little to qualify for tax credits, but does not have the option to join Medicaid. These states are essentially choosing to leave some of their poorest residents – a number of whom were formerly incarcerated – without a way to find affordable coverage. States need to accept the Medicaid dollars they are being offered and give the 3.7 million people in “the coverage gap” the financial security they need to build a better life. Ensuring everyone has a chance to get ahead is what this country is supposed to be all about.

Incarceration is often associated with political disenfranchisement, the loss of rights, marginalization, skepticism, and and many other challenges, but the Affordable Care Act has taken steps to remove barriers to economic mobility for former inmates. So, while inmates may worry about what lies on the other side of those heavy doors of incarceration, most can count on access to affordable health care coverage and improved economic security when getting back on their feet. And, that, my friends, is something to come home to.

(For more information, please review YI’s Young Adults In The Criminal Justice System fact sheet and watch the below webinar on healthcare options available to formerly incarcerated young adults.)