Author Archives: Lisa Sendrow

The Prison System and Mental Health

In the United States, people with severe mental illness are three times more likely to be in a prison instead of a mental health institution. Forty percent of people with severe mental illness will also spend time in a jail, prison, or correctional facility. There are many people with mental health issues who are being punished, including being executed and kept in solitary confinement.


Even though people with intellectual disabilities may not be executed under the Eighth Amendment, the Supreme Court has held that people who are mentally ill may still be executed, including people will severe mental illnesses, and only that the insane may not be executed. The “insane” is defined as “those who are unaware of the punishment they are about to suffer and why they are to suffer it.” But the Court has also said that the Eighth Amendment requires prison officials to provide a system of ready access to adequate medical care, including mental health care. However, states have not always followed the Court’s guidance, particularly when it comes to solitary confinement and the death penalty. Between 2010 and 2017, twenty-six percent of prisoners who were executed had a history of mental illness or were treated with psychotropic medication. Currently, between five and ten percent of death row prisoners are estimated to be suffering from a mental illness.


In October 2018, Yale Law School issued a report that over 4,000 prisoners in solitary confinement have a mental illness. Solitary confinement can often exacerbate or even trigger a prisoner’s mental health issues. Prisoners are kept in total isolation for twenty-two hours per day for at least fifteen consecutive days. In New Mexico, for example, sixty-four percent of prisoners with mental health issues were kept in solitary confinement. Unfortunately, prisoners who are kept in solitary confinement often leave more mentally damaged than when they entered, and are less likely to successfully reenter society.


The prison system must change to help prisoners who have a history of mental illness, and not further criminalize them. Many states are considering legislation to end the practice of executing prisoners with a mental illness and there are other states that are ending or restricting solitary confinement. For instance, in the fall of 2017, Colorado established a procedure to immediately provide prisoners with treatment rather than place them in segregated lock-up.


Prisoners can also have difficulty obtaining treatment because their insurance may no longer cover their medications and they also do not have reliable access to therapy while in prison. Mental Health America made suggestions to improve mental health access for the incarcerated, including investing in mental health courts and creating systems of support for people who are incarcerated or recently released and who need access to a community-based service. States can also reevaluate Medicaid exclusions on prisoners, so prisoners can still obtain their medications and their mental health issues will not be exacerbated while incarcerated. Authors of an article in the American Journal of Public Health have additionally suggested providing telemedicine, integrated family counseling, and cognitive-behavioral therapies to complement medication and also reduce levels of reoffending. There also need to be better transitional plans for prisoners to reintegrate into the community and still obtain mental health treatment. Prisoners who received a professional diagnosis of a mental health disorder were seventy percent more likely to return to prison when they did not have any correctional intervention and treatment.


It may also be prudent to determine whether a new mental health standard should be established for prisoners who develop mental health issues while in prison. The Supreme Court will soon decide a case about the execution of a man who developed severe mental health issues will in prison, in which case there may be an answer soon.

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Telemedicine: Making Health Care a Reality for All

The American Telemedical Association, a leading telehealth association, describes telemedicine as the remote delivery of health care services and clinical information using telecommunications technology including through the internet and cellphones. Telemedicine has seen an exponential increase in the last few years with about 200 telemedicine networks and 3,500 service sites in the United States. Litigation regarding telemedicine issues was somewhat prevalent in the early 2000s, but has not been highly litigated in the last few years. Now the creation of telemedicine networks is keeping people healthy and out of hospitals as physicians and patients are downloading telemedicine apps, making healthcare available with the push of a button. Because of these advances and the lack of litigation and legislation, there may be changes to telemedicine in the near future.


Overall telemedicine has benefited people. The increase of health care costs has made it difficult for patients to have the means to see their doctors. Additionally, living in a rural area or not having easy access to transportation can make it hard for patients to access specialized programs. Doctors are trying to find ways to see more patients at lower costs and telemedicine is making this a reality. About two months ago, CVS Health announced that it would offer a telemedicine service through its smartphone app to treat easy-to-diagnose issues like colds, skin issues, and general wellness matters. At first, the service will cost $59 and then insurance coverage will be available in the coming months.


Medicaid is also accepting telemedicine to cover medical diagnosis, although the administration of the program is left to the states’ discretion. In July 2018, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) published a 1,400 page document with new proposed rules indicating that there would likely be changes to the telemedicine system. Comments to the document were due in early September 2018, so we may be breaking new barriers into health care soon. Pursuant to CMS’s proposed rules, patients would need to have a preexisting relationship with the doctor. If CMS expands this program to allow telemedicine between physicians and patients without preexisting relationships, this may open the door for legal issues. However, these new rules should simplify the process even further. They will remove barriers for those who need care so that providers can virtually check on patients and at the same time, spend time with patients who need in-person care. And telemedicine will also help the disabled and elderly who may rely on having someone who can take them to their appointment.


The federal government has not made many decisions about telemedicine, even though CMS is starting to make new ground and Congress is starting to look into legislature concerning telemedicine. Therefore, states are starting to pass bills to make telemedicine more prevalent in their states. The Texas legislature overruled its state medical board to enable telemedicine physician-patient relationships to proceed without an initial in-person visit; the Michigan and Indiana legislatures reversed restrictions on telemedicine regarding in-person visits; and telemedicine is seeing support in Pennsylvania and Louisiana.


However, there are still some issues that need to be explored before telemedicine can become a truly effective national resource. Since physicians and patients may not be in the same jurisdiction, and jurisdictions tackle certain health care issues differently, there may be an issue in crossing jurisdiction for treatment. Insurance companies will also have to determine how private insurers will cover telemedicine services. Overall, Congress should look into regulating telemedicine so that insurance providers and legislation help achieve the goal of providing healthcare to those who may not have easy access.

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