By Kent Gray

Triplicate staff writer

State legislators this week approved a special audit this year to study the cost of health care that contractors provide to prisoners in California.

The Joint Legislative Audit Committee unanimously approved the request of Assemblywoman Rebecca Cohn (D-Saratoga) to review the Department of Corrections' policies and procedures for contracting the services.

andquot;There was great concern, because Governor Gray Davis has proposed an increase in the department's budget this year,andquot; said Cohn's press secretary, Erika Weaver-Taylor. andquot;And with the state experiencing its current budget problems, we need to examine what comes out of the general fund.andquot;

Weaver-Taylor said a breakdown for providing health care to individual prisons will be part of the study.

andquot;Each individual prison will be looked at, and at the end of the audit, there will be specific numbers for all of them, including Pelican Bay State Prison,andquot; said Weaver-Taylor. andquot;I think in rural areas, as you know, health care is more difficult to find. And in any case, where there are fewer options, costs tend to rise.andquot;

Pelican Bay contracts locally with Sutter Coast Hospital. According to Department of Corrections spokesperson Terry Thornton, the contract with Sutter is for $4.25 million for a two-year period.

Thornton said the bulk of that contract covers Pelican Bay and the Alder Camp facility in Klamath.

Weaver-Taylor said the audit should be concluded by late this year or early next year, including recommendations on how to reduce costs.

According to Cohn's office, the Department of Corrections had a budget of $5 billion in 2001 and $5.2 billion in 2002. Davis is proposing another increase to $5.4 billion this year.

andquot;Even though the increases only appear in fractions, when you are talking about billions of dollars, those fractions work out to be hundreds of millions of dollars,andquot; Weaver-Taylor said. She added further increases may not be necessary if health-care costs can be contained.

andquot;The Legislative Analysts Office looked at this already,andquot; said Weaver-Taylor. andquot;Their analysis of the prison health-care system is that those costs would rise more rapidly than any other cost the prison system has.

The cost to provide health care for California's inmates has reportedly tripled in recent years.

Thornton said in January that the amount budgeted for inmate health care in the 1997-98 fiscal year was $282 million. The cost for 2003-04 will exceed $841 million.

According to the U.S. Medical Group in Florida, the nation's total inmate health-care costs are somewhere between $3 and $5 billion per year.

Pelican Bay employs seven physician/surgeons, five dentists and more than 40 psychiatrists and psychologists full time for its inmates.