Deadly Delay

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Barrett Harrington, nicknamed “Suicide” on Rikers Island, got out of jail in May 1999. Although he suffered from mood disorders, Harrington, like other newly released prisoners, was given only a three-day supply of medication. Without health insurance or a job, he couldn’t get the drugs and psychiatric treatment he needed.

Two months later, he finally accomplished what he tried to do repeatedly since he got out of jail–he hanged himself in his mother’s apartment.

Paradoxically, his mother points out, he may have been better off if he’d stayed in jail, where he could at least get psychiatric care. “The only time he got treated seriously for a mental illness was at Rikers,” says his mother Susan Harrington.

Instead, Harrington fell through the cracks in New York State’s social services law. By those rules, anyone released from jail must wait at least 45 to 90 days before getting approved for Medicaid. While they wait, most ex-prisoners must rely on community agencies to provide medication and services.

Medicaid picks up the bill later on, but ex-prisoners must be diligent and persistent to get what they need from these crowded clinics. “It’s hard enough for someone who is well,” says Susan Harrington.

The delay allows officials to make sure that the applicant fits income guidelines, but for fragile patients like Barrett Harrington the wait can be deadly. His mother didn’t get the letter approving him for Medicaid benefits until five days after he killed himself.

Mental health advocates explain that the current policy allows the state to cut costs on medical care. “They derive savings by delaying the process of getting ex-prisoners access to medications,” says Joseph Glazer, president of the advocacy group Mental Health Association in New York State. The policy hasn’t been updated since the mid 1960s, adds Glazer: “The problem is that society has changed, but the system that governs it has not.”

Now, a group of mentally ill people’s families and advocates are pushing the governor to support a proposed new program that would allow people with mental illness to have automatic access to Medicaid as soon as they get out of jail.

So far, the Senate and governor remain adamantly opposed to the plan, and it has not been included in next year’s state budget.