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Out of Prison, but Struggling for Health Care

Star Tribune

By Glenn Howatt

On his release from prison in December 2013, Gregory Odeneal had secured a place to live. He had studied his responsibilities under Minnesota’s supervised-release program, and he was prepared to start job hunting.

What he didn’t have was health insurance. Which was a problem because he needed a physician’s care for a worsening case of multiple sclerosis.

“The doctors won’t see me if I don’t have the insurance,” he said in a recent interview.

It took Odeneal nearly two months to get approved for the state’s Medicaid health insurance program for the poor, causing his treatment to be delayed and his symptoms to worsen.

Scores of inmates leave Minnesota’s prisons every year, and many of them have costly chronic diseases such as diabetes and hepatitis, or mental illness and drug addictions — conditions that can undercut their re-entry into society. The Minnesota Department of Corrections has a Medicaid application program for departing inmates who have a disability, while others are given applications and encouraged to apply.

But it’s unclear how many actually have health coverage on their release, and advocates say the state could do more — especially now that most prisoners are eligible for Medicaid under an expansion created by the 2010 Affordable Care Act.

“This is not an easy application process, and we are concerned that DOC is not putting enough specialized resources into it,” said Meghan Kimmel, president of St. Paul-based Portico Healthnet, which helps people, including inmates, apply for health insurance.

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