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Study says helping homeless would save RI money

By David Klepper
Associated Press / July 19, 2012
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PROVIDENCE, R.I.—Rhode Island spends nearly $60 million a year providing Medicaid services to the homeless and could save millions over time by offering more housing programs with support services that give the homeless better health care alternatives to emergency room visits, a study released Thursday says.

The study's author, Providence College sociology professor Eric Hirsch, analyzed the costs of providing Medicaid services to homeless people and concluded that too many homeless people with chronic health conditions are forced to turn to emergency rooms and nursing homes -- two services that are far more expensive than regular medical visits or preventative care.

Hirsch determined that 67 homeless men and women alone accounted for more than $4 million in Medicaid costs each year. He estimated the state could save at least $1 million a year if those 67 people were given housing, case management and regular help for conditions like addiction and mental health problems. The savings would be even greater if more homeless people got the services they need, he said.

"We're already spending the money we're just spending it in the least cost-effective manner, by leaving them on the street," Hirsch said.

The state says 4,396 people used emergency shelters in Rhode Island last year.

Gov. Lincoln Chafee said he agrees with Hirsch's conclusions, which were presented Thursday to the state's Interagency Council on Homelessness. Chafee said he's interested in finding ways to offer more permanent housing options to homeless people.

"There are two reasons why," he said. "One is the moral reason. Two is the cost. We can help people and save money."

Chafee, an independent, attended the meeting to sign an agreement renewing a partnership between the state and community organizations working to improve resources for the homeless. The deal between the state and the Rhode Island Foundation, United Way of Rhode Island, Rhode island Housing and the Corporation for Supportive Housing includes funding for a coordinator at the Council on Homelessness.

Chafee said he is optimistic the state can reduce the number of homeless Rhode Islanders because of the state's small size and its dedicated group of advocates.

"I'm not naive. It's going to be a hard transition," he said. "But if we can't do it here, nobody can."

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