The state's Office of the Child Advocate recommended Wednesday that cash-strapped county governments carefully avoid paying medical expenses for juvenile offenders, following a 2009 study that found most of them have health insurance.

Area detention centers aren't likely to see much savings, though, county administrators said.

From April through July, the agency collected data from Harborfields Juvenile Detention Center in Egg Harbor City, the Juvenile Detention Center in Toms River and similar facilities in Bergen, Mercer and Middlesex counties.

Thirty-six percent of juveniles admitted from April through July had public health insurance and another 28 percent had private insurance, the study found.

"Few counties have a system in place to bill private health insurance companies for the cost of care," said Joseph Suozzo, first assistant child advocate. "This is an incredible opportunity for counties to recoup some of the cost of this expensive care, while freeing up dollars for prevention and other services."

The opportunity is apparently minimal at Harborfields, where the population stands at 16, county administrator Gerald Del Rosso said. Offenders have been increasingly placed outside of the detention center through home placement and other programs.

"Most of the kids there have Medicaid," a public insurance plan, Del Rosso said. "For the most part, these kids, they're handling their end of the system. I don't remember when we went after a family (for medical reimbursement) when a kid was in Harborfields."

Federal law limits Medicaid use while juveniles are detained, but some agencies incorrectly believe inmates are completely Medicaid-ineligible and thus lose opportunities for reimbursement, the study found. State agencies might lobby to ease those limits in New Jersey, the Office of Child Advocate said.

Cape May County already privatized its youth shelter near the end of 2009. This new study would not have had much effect even if it came out before the decision was made.

"The health insurance wasn't a big component of our whole youth shelter plan," Cape May County Administrator Stephen O'Connor said.

O'Connor said the county previously leased 10 beds from Cumberland County when they would typically use only between two and four beds at a time. Now, only four beds are leased from the neighboring county.

Staff writer Ben Leach contributed to this report.

Contact Eric Scott Campbell:

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