Inmates in Ottawa County are soaking up thousands of taxpayer dollars for medical expenses.

According to Undersheriff Bob Ernst, the county spent $128,405.13 on medical expenses for inmates in 2007 - about 12-percent of the jail's annual budget.

“We have a full time nurse and physician's assistant here on staff for the inmates medical needs,” Ernst said. “That is $30,000 per year combined.”

The problem, according to jail administrators throughout the nation, is only going to get worse.

Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that counties must now be responsible for the cost of medical care for inmates - including pre-existing health problems. Self-inflicted injuries must also be covered, according to the new ruling.

“Our current medical expenses will skyrocket with all this pre-existing stuff,” Ernst said.

Several rural jail administrators have rallied to reverse the U.S. Supreme Court decision.

This court ruling could literally bankrupt some county governments, especially in rural areas, according to jail administrators. So it is imperative that the Legislature fix this problem.

“What would keep some uninsured person who had a terminal illness, like cancer, from getting themselves incarcerated so we would have to be liable for their medical care,” Ernst said.

The jail currently has an annual budget of about $1 million.

An increase in medical expenses could quickly absorb the entire annual budget.

State Sen. Owen Laughlin, R-Woodward, has filed a bill for the 2008 legislative session to reverse the Supreme Court decision.

“My bill will make it clear that an inmate in custody at a county jail is responsible for the cost of his medical care for pre-existing conditions or self-inflicted injuries,” Laughlin said.