LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (KTHV) - There are 75 county jails in Arkansas, and nearly all of them agree the biggest cost they have every year is health care for inmates, but could the Affordable Care Act change that?

Once a person is taken into custody at a county jail, the sheriff's department immediately becomes responsible for their health and well being. That also means their medical bills.

"We have our own infirmary where we have 30 plus nurses. We have a doctor on staff. We have psychiatrists, dentists that are all on contract with us," said Lt. Carl Minden with the Pulaski County Sheriff's Office.

Every year, the Pulaski County Detention Center allots $4 million for inmate medical care with the biggest costs coming from off-site hospital stays.

"Quite honestly, we factor it to go up every year because with inflation it's not going to get any lower," added Lt. Minden.

"Our budget is $50,000 a year. Last year, we ended up spending about $80,000 on medical care for inmates," explained Jim Kulesa with the Lonoke County Sheriff's Department.

It's a problem all county jails face. Some are even forced to release non-violent offenders to avoid paying their medical expenses.

"Any program or anything that would help curb the cost in that area or on the taxpayers would really be a good benefit for us," said Kulesa.

New state and federal health care laws set to kick in next year could pay off-site hospitalization costs for inmates. Those inmates that qualify for Medicaid would also be taken care of. While the system could work well for state inmates serving long-term sentences, Lt. Minden believes it is too early to tell if the county inmates only serving a few days or weeks would benefit.

"If you can get $10,000, $15,000, or $20,000 paid for, it may be worth your while but right now, nobody really knows," explained Lt. Minden.

Lt. Minden said there are still a lot of questions to be answered like what will the paperwork process be like, and how difficult will be to get inmates enrolled in Medicaid? The new laws would apply immediately to state prisoners who are treated in hospitals. The state would have to work out a separate system for county jails.

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