CHEYENNE — Wyoming spent about $20.7 million on prison health care services in 2011, ranking it third-highest among states in such spending per inmate, according to a new report.
A study released this past week by the State Health Care Spending Project found that Wyoming spent an average of $10,870 on health care per inmate in 2011, the latest year that nationwide statistics were available. Wyoming had an average daily prison population of 1,905 in 2011.
The national average was for states to spend about $6,000 per inmate during that time.
Only California and Vermont spent more per inmate than Wyoming.
Maria Schiff is the director of the State Health Care Spending Project, which is an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
Schiff said the higher spending is not necessarily an indication of waste or a lack of efficiency.
"A variety of factors impacted states, such as the age and health status of the prisoners, regional differences in available health care services and the disparity in health care outcomes," she said.
Schiff added that although many states' prison health care spending appears to have peaked in 2010, it is still a strain on budgets across the country.
Wyoming Department of Corrections Director Bob Lampert said the state's location makes it hard to find inexpensive contractors to provide the health services within the prisons.
"We are a frontier state, and all of our prisons are in rural areas," he said. "It is difficult, at best, to recruit medical providers to any part of Wyoming, so there is a premium that comes with hiring practitioners for that type of environment."
The state's aging prison population is likely another contributor to the high costs.
On average, 8.8 percent of Wyoming's inmates were 55 or older in the period from 2007 to 2011, according to the report. This is higher than the average of 7.15 percent who were older than 55 in the 42 states that reported data about inmate ages.
Lampert said the average Wyoming inmate comes into the system with more health problems than the typical resident.
"In Wyoming, we have about 35 percent of the inmates coming in with mental illnesses, and about 65 percent come in with moderate or high substance-abuse problems in the past," he said. "That is much more prevalent than what you see in the general population."
But the report revealed some good news for Wyoming. The state's per-inmate cost declined 7 percent between 2007 and 2011.
Lampert said that is partly because the state took on more inmates during this time. But he said the state has also been more aggressive in negotiating better health care contracts in recent years.
In addition, he said the department is seeing success in using telehealth services, which allow patients to submit diagnostic information over the phone or Internet to medical professionals located far away from the patient.
Lampert said that can expand the available health care options and eliminate the need for costly, and potentially dangerous, off-site visits.