Apr 16, 2024 - News

Iowa Ombudsman finds that Polk County Jail illegally collects medical costs

Illustration of a pair of handcuffs in the shape of a dollar sign.

Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

Polk County Jail illegally recovers healthcare costs from inmates before they are convicted, according to a recent investigative report by the Iowa Office of Ombudsman.

Why it matters: Due process also applies to inmates' funds, yet their money is being taken with little or no notice, and sometimes without going through a court process as required by Iowa law.

Catch up fast: Jails are required to provide necessary care for serious medical and dental needs.

  • By state law, county sheriffs are allowed to recover the costs from inmates, but only if they are found guilty and the costs are approved by a court.

Reality check: Jail practices have been inconsistent across the state since a 2006 change to Iowa Administrative Code, the document that interprets and implements state law.

  • Some jails are using an outdated section of the code, and it's led to complaints to his office for years, ombudsman Bernardo Granwehr said in a press release.

Zoom in: The ombudsman office recently surveyed 12 counties and found jails in nine were in violation of the law, including Polk County.

  • Jail administrators in Mills, Scott and O'Brien counties have already agreed to change their practices, according to the ombudsman's office.

Yes, but: Polk County officials do not believe the report takes into account other administrative powers jails have to make inmates pay, Capt. Ryan Evans tells Axios.

  • There have been no changes to billing practices in the wake of the report, Evans said last week.

What they're saying: A jail's ability to collect does not circumvent the due process requirement, Bert Dalmer, senior deputy ombudsman, tells Axios.

By the numbers: Polk County Jail inmate medical costs were just over $7.4 million in the fiscal year that ended in June 2023.

  • The county collected $37,500 in copays — or 0.5% of the total cost, according to data from the sheriff's department.
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