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County to Cover Inmate’s $500,000 in Annual Prescription Drug Costs

Board of Supervisors approves the unexpected expense, which exceeds the jail's annual Rx budget, and discusses alternatives for handling such cases

With no small amount of chagrin, the Santa Barbara County Board Supervisors approved on Tuesday an unbudgeted $500,000 to pay for prescriptions needed for an inmate with a life-threatening condition.

The inmate, whose name and medical condition have not been released because of patient privacy laws, was arrested in February and booked into the County Jail on a charge of attempted murder and is likely to remain in custody for a significant period of time.

The cost of the man’s medicine, estimated at $510,048, is more than the jail’s entire annual budget for prescription drugs for all inmates, but because the jail must provide treatment for inmates, the county was forced to pay.

Sheriff Bill Brown reiterated Tuesday that electronic monitoring for the man wouldn’t be appropriate based on the severity of the charges.

The man requires a dose of the medication three times a week, with each dose costing $2,760. Before his arrest, the suspect received his medication free through a state program. That funding source, known as the Genetically Handicapped Persons Program and administered by the state Department of Health Care Services, helps provide medical care for genetic conditions such as hemophilia and cystic fibrosis.

Because the man is now incarcerated, he no longer qualifies.

Sheriff Brown said the department expects more challenges as the jail is forced to assume mental and physical health care for inmates as a result of Assembly Bill 109, the public safety realignment bill aimed at reducing overcrowding, costs and recidivism in state prisons. Under the law, more convicted criminals are allowed to serve their sentences in county jails rather than be sent to state prisons.

Though the inmate is not in custody because of AB 109, “it’s just one more challenge that we’re all facing. It’s certainly not the way I’d like to see money spent in our budget,” Brown said, adding that the amount could pay for four custody deputies for a new jail. “Unfortunately, the law is the law.”

Whether the inmate was in state prison or the county jail, his pricey medical care is still funded by California taxpayers — a fact not lost on either the Sheriff Brown or the Board of Supervisors.

Supervisor Doreen Farr asked whether the county Public Health Department had explored obtaining the medications cheaper through Canadian pharmacies.

Public Health Director Dr. Takashi Wada said the medication was “rare and not readily available,” but that he would check with pharmacists about getting a cheaper deal internationally.

Supervisor Janet Wolf recommended that the county’s legislative committee look into the issue.

“At some point, it’s going to break the bank, and I’m sure we’re not the only county that this has happened to,” she said. “It’s pretty outrageous to me.”

Supervisor Joni Gray asked Brown what would happen if a similar inmate situation popped up in Alpine County, where only about 1,200 people live and pay county taxes.

When Brown responded that Alpine County would be just as obligated to pay, Gray responded, “It could theoretically bankrupt a county.”

Brown said there are insurance policies that could cover such cases, and the county had considered them at some point but the premiums were inordinately high.

Farr said the case highlights something the county may be faced with as realignment sets in.

“There’s nothing to stop us from having half a dozen cases with expensive medications that we have to take care of for years and years,” she said.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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