Expensive trend: People committing crimes to get free jail health care

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — A Colorado man who wouldn`t stop calling 911 for medical help spent 203 days in jail even though a judge thought just ten days was enough.

A FOX31 Denver investigation found Wayland Mark Whitney of Colorado Springs languished in jail months longer than necessary because the court system could not locate a mental health treatment or housing facility that would accept him.

Whitney also played a role in his initial incarceration, telling Investigative reporter Chris Halsne he wanted access to the jail’s health care because he was having trouble getting free treatments on the outside.

“All I did was commit misdemeanor crimes to get in here to get help,” Whitney said during a television interview with FOX31 Denver News.

Jail administrators throughout the state say it’s a growing trend: those desperate to acquire expensive mental health medications for nothing are trying to get arrested and sent to jail for short stints.

Halsne featured Whitney in a story about “super-utilizers” that aired last February.

FOX31 Denver has identified him as one of the costliest public health patients in Colorado.

Sources familiar with his care tell us millions of tax dollars have gone into ambulance rides, emergency room stays, police encounters, and surgeries to save his life after he keeps sticking himself in the stomach with meat skewers.

The latest expense for tax payers is how he began manipulating the jail health care system.

He told FOX31 Denver in the El Paso County jail parking lot, he didn’t necessarily enjoy life behind bars, but it beat the alternative.

“We`re dealing with a system here that has just thrown me out into the street, I got no coat and I don`t have any money. I don`t have a bus pass … if I didn`t have my dad, I don`t know what I would do. I`d have to commit a crime to go back to the prison.”

El Paso County Undersheriff Paula Presley oversees operations at the second largest jail in the state. She says approximately80 percent of the inmates at the El Paso County jail are diagnosed with mental illness or have other serious medical issues when they arrive.

Presley told FOX31 Denver, “Sadly they know enough to understand that once they get into our custody, they are going to be treated.”

Presley says sick care-seekers like Mark Whitney can triple the costs of an average jail stay.

Despite the jail funding a full treatment center behind bars, plus a six-figure annual after-care program, this groups recidivism rate keeps climbing.

“Sometimes it`s intentional,” says Presley. “Once they run out of resources on the street – which may be immediately upon their release – they have to find a way to get the help they need.”

Whitney`s 83-year-old father, Ken, says his son’s been banned from nearly every local motel and residential treatment facility. He says, sadly, jail health care has been a good option. His son must take his mental health medications and guards kept him from hurting himself.

Ken Whitney had hoped a new state public health program called ACC, or the Affordable Care Collaborative, might finally get Mark help, but not so far.

“I think they were at a loss as what to do to help him.”

Of the approximately 500,000 Colorado Medicaid patients screened by the ACC so far, only one-half of one percent are labeled “super utilizers” like Whitney; that’s only 3,004 clients statewide. That tiny, but expensive group annually cost taxpayers around $76 million in public health care.

And for Mark Whitney, unless someone or some agency figures out what to do with him the costs will keep rising.

Whitney says he will not stop asking for help, even though at times, he feel like he’s all alone.

“Since I have a history of doing this to myself, they think I`m hopeless – just a bad apple or both – well there`s nothing we can do for this guy so they`ve given up in a lot of ways.”

Mr. Whitney is on the political radar not only for his enormous (and still growing) public health care tab, but for an encounter he had last summer with Colorado Lt. Governor Joe Garcia.

Whitney tells FOX31 Denver he’d been drinking and was upset about being denied entry into an emergency room, so he walked up the Garcia’s private residence in Colorado Springs and banged on the door asking for help. Records show Garcia answered the door, and then called police. His staff declined to comment further on the matter.

Whitney says he thought it was the mayor’s house, but when he found out the truth, he hoped it would have a positive effect. He told FOX31 Denver, “The police came and told me about it. ‘You know whose door you knocked on?’ I thought, okay, maybe he should hear about this – I thought how ironic.”