But that won't stop UTMB from subsidizing a private start-up firm to market the idea to other prison systems and the private sector. The Houston Chronicle reported over the weekend ("Virtual care, real profit," Aug. 25):
Being Texas, it's not enough that we develop some of the worst corrections policies on the planet, our taxpayers subsidize the export of those bad ideas to other places and the private sector.
The group that helped pioneer remote medical treatment of prison inmates in Texas hopes to commercialize that technology and market it beyond government contracts.
The University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston is expanding part of its telemedicine group as a for-profit startup, dubbed NuPhysicia, with $5 million in funding from Houston-based private equity group Sanders Morris Harris.
That's what's happening here. UTMB is responsible for most inmates' care, but rather than adequately staff prison medical facilities, they've relied on this gimmick they've dubbed "telemedicine" to give medical care through video conferencing systems.
The result: UTMB's Ben Raimer testified to the Texas Legislature last year that they were "very close" to providing unconstitutionally poor levels of health care. Legislative hearings on the subject pinned blame on the telemedicine system, as Grits reported in November:
Prison doctors see 60 patients in eight hours using telemedicine systems, sometimes from 4 a.m. to noon, witnesses told the commission.UTMB hasn't fixed problems with Texas prisoner health systems, but they're now planning to export those systems to other locales for profit. How much sense does that make? Ironically, UTMB cited low spending on Texas prisoner healthcare in the article as a selling point for its program, but the writer doesn't mention that the state suffers poor health outcomes to go with its low spending. The Chronicle reported:
So let's think about that. At most, assuming docs take no bathroom or meal breaks, and with zero time between prisoners, that would mean prison docs using telemedicine systems spend 8 minutes per patient. Since all that is unrealistic, with 15 minutes per hour for restroom breaks, meal breaks, and time transferring from one to another prisoner, medical visits are likely to be more like 7 minutes long. And your workday, for the doc, starts at 4 a.m.?! Who would want that job?
Sen. Bob Deuell from East Texas, who is a medical doctor, sounded skeptical of the telemedicine system. He questioned during the Sunset hearing how high the quality of care could be for patients who only saw their doctor that short a time and only over a video feed.
Texas' low spending on healthcare should be no selling point when UTMB publicly admits to being "very close" to providing care so poor it violates patients rights! In fact, it's odd to see UTMB citing that $7.66 figure as a positive - they told the Legislature that number needed to increase substantially, and said it could go as high as California's costs if the courts ever required UTMB to provide similar levels of care.
Half of UTMB's telemedicine patients are prison inmates.
Texas spends 46 percent of what California does per prisoner for health care, in part because telemedicine has driven down costs.
Texas spent $7.66 per inmate per day for health-related expenses in 2006 while California spent $16.60 per inmate per day, according to figures compiled by the Texas State Auditor's Office.
Electronic Health Network will continue to exist and treat Texas inmates.
NuPhysicia will pay UTMB to use its technology and some of its staff for governmental and private telemedicine contracts outside of Texas.
I must admit, part of me doesn't like the idea of a public university subsidizing for profit private investments. I don't see why UTMB should get legislative appropriations if they're going to spend millions to start private businesses. Hell, I'd like a few million in legislative appropriations to start a small business, if you don't mind!
But beyond those public policy concerns, UTMB shouldn't be selling its telemedicine program to the public as some big, cost saving success when the truth is, judging from prisoner outcomes, it produces a poor product.