September 28, 2022

Older people released from Colorado prisons struggle with health insurance, housing

Epifanio Nieto was riding a bus in September when his body suddenly stopped working — he tried to use his hand but couldn’t, and then he started to fall.

The driver stopped the bus, saying “I think you’re having a stroke.”

An ambulance was called, and Nieto, 73, spent seven days in the hospital. When he finally recovered and received the bill, it was for just $112.

“That’s one benefit to Medicare,” he said. “They took care of everything.”

Nieto, who served 13 years in prison, had a harder time than many securing the federal health insurance — he was incarcerated when he turned 65, and penalized because he did not sign up for Medicare during the required seven-month window around his 65th birthday.

His experience is common among older people who are released from prison in Colorado, experts say. They face extra hurdles to finding both housing and health insurance.

In July, state legislators passed a law aimed at addressing some of those hurdles and requiring the state’s Commission on Aging to study the problems and report findings by the end of the year.

“It’s just one of those things, the more you learn, the worse it gets,” said Jane Barnes, chair of the commission.

“It’s like a Gordian knot,” she added, referring to the historic name given to a problem solved only by bold action.

The commission spent six months studying the problem and formed several recommendations for how the state can help older people navigate healthcare after their releases from prison. Barnes declined to discuss the recommendations until the report becomes public in January.

Among the problems: people who have been incarcerated for decades may not have enough work credit to qualify for premium-free Medicare even if they worked in prison; release from prison does not trigger a special enrollment period so some must wait months to sign up; and many prisoners miss the brief window to sign up for Medicare around their 65th birthday and go on to face penalties.

“It’s been overwhelming; the lack of support, the lack of resources for anyone elderly leaving prison has been a nightmare,” said Kelly Brasier, whose 85-year-old uncle Anthony Martinez was released from prison in January. She’s spent the months since wading through red tape. Her uncle was not eligible for full Medicare because of his limited work history, she said.

“He’s got no work credit, even though he worked as a janitor in the prison,” she said.

She’s been paying for many of his medical expenses out of pocket, springing for a hospital bed, handicap ramp, wheelchair, walker and crutches, she said. She’d like to see the Department of Corrections ensure older inmates are enrolled in health insurance before they are released — a step that is now mandated by the law passed this summer.

Older people released from Colorado prisons struggle with health insurance, housing, study finds