In the United States, prison healthcare has become increasingly expensive. In 2011 alone, $7.7 billion dollars out of the $38.6 total that was spent on U.S. prisoners was dedicated to healthcare. In Texas, over $581 million was spent on inmate health care. This is in part because the amount of inmates over 55 years old has increased over the last few years.

The Texas Department of Corrections has been searching for a way to cut some of these costs, and with the advent of telemedicine, they think they’ve found it. Telemedicine is a high-tech medical consultation that has helped the Texas Penal System cut health care costs. It helps medical experts, often located over 100 miles away, connect with prisoners.

Telemedicine allows the medical expert to see and speak with an inmate via a remotely streaming webcam. They can see each other through a television screen, but they aren’t able to touch. The doctor will have access to electronic medical records and can ask the inmate questions regarding their health – much like an average medical visit.

The Texas Department of Correctional Justice subcontracts their prison healthcare to Texas Tech University and the University of Texas Medical Branch. The cost-saving technology, telemedicine, as well as their partnership has reduced medical costs dramatically. Between 1994 and 2008, telemedicine has saved Texas $780 million dollars.

Since telemedicine was implemented, AIDs related deaths were reduced by 84%, the blood sugar levels of diabetic prisoners decreased by 18% and inmate’s blood pressure control improved. The combination of telemedicine, electronic medical records, adherence to disease management guidelines and preferred drug lists has proven its ability to cut spending costs and improve access to healthcare.

It isn’t without its set of critics though. Some believe it’s a dangerous way to save money within a system that has raised concerns for its poor medical care. The Texas Civil Rights Project has filed many lawsuits against Texas’ Department of Corrections. They cite medical negligence and the project’s legal director expresses concern for the possibility of shortchanging a vulnerable population.