The high cost of determining whether a prisoner is insane is vexing Salt Lake County officials.

About $400,000 in unpaid bills have piled up since the county decided last December to refuse to pay for the procedure, which often is ordered by judges.Because the issue wasn't addressed in Tuesday's special session of the Legislature, the amount of the bills could double before lawmakers meet again.

"We will continue to refuse to pay," said Jim Walker, the county's associate human services director, echoing earlier statements by county commissioners.

State lawmakers have admitted they are responsible for the exams - sort of. They passed a law saying so but included a clause that requires them to pay for the exams only if they include it in their budget.

County officials, who had been paying for the exams before this year, say that is like leasing an apartment with the understanding you will pay rent only if you have the money.

Not surprisingly, the Legislature never has appropriated money for the exams.

Meanwhile, judges keep ordering the tests for suspected criminals.

County officials recently set aside $25,000 so some prisoners can be sent to private doctors. The money may cover 15 or 20 exams because the exams cost only one-tenth as much if done by private doctors, Walker said.

"It used to be automatic that they (prisoners) would go to the state hospital," he said. "That mindset is being changed."

Private doctors cost less because they don't necessarily need to provide beds, food and other necessities the state hospital provides for prisoners, he said.

But when the money runs out, all prisoners will have to be examined at state hospitals again.

"It wouldn't be right for us not to pay private providers," Walker said.

County officials said the change would take only a few minutes. All lawmakers have to do is remove the clause that allows them to pay only when they want.

The Legislature's Social Services Committee agrees the law should be changed.

"It was our definite recommendation that anything the state orders should be paid for by the state," said Rep. Ervin Skousen, R-Salt Lake, a member of the committee. "The district courts are the ones that mandate that these (exams) be done."

Skousen said lawmakers should estimate how much the exams will cost and set the money aside each year in the budget.