Doctor criticizes quality of health care in Arizona prisons
PHOENIX (AP) — A doctor who worked at an Arizona prison testified Tuesday that the state’s health care system for inmates is often inadequate in responding to the urgent medical needs of patients and in approving appointments for those who need to see specialists.
Dr. Jan Watson, who worked at a state prison complex in Florence from May until October, is a key witness in a lawsuit that challenges the quality of health care for inmates. She testified in a dispute over whether the state’s health care provider for inmates, Corizon Health, skirted changes in policies that the state agreed to when it settled the lawsuit, which was filed on behalf of 33,000 inmates.
The hearing was prompted by an email written in September by a Corizon employee who asked Watson to cancel infection-disease consultations for an inmate because the company didn’t have a provider to send him to. The email alluded to a threat by the judge to impose fines. U.S. Magistrate David Duncan has said the email looked like an end-run around efforts to monitor whether the state is making the improvements.
Watson said a Department of Corrections employee offered what the doctor believed were tips for making their compliance data look better than it was. “She said, ‘I’ll show you what you need to do to beat the monitor,’” Watson said.
The doctor also described several instances in which requests for her patients to see medical specialists were denied.
Watson said she unsuccessfully sought a neurological consultation for a patient who had seizures he couldn’t control. She was told such a consult would be too expensive and instead a helmet was recommended for the prisoner, who was believed to be a risk of hurting himself from falls.
Watson also testified that her unit at the prison was frequently short on medications and had too many patients to see in a given day, resulting in some being sent back to their housing units without receiving care.
Daniel Struck, an attorney representing the state, criticized Watson for not revealing to Corizon the total number of lawsuits that she has faced over the years and that she had been fired from an earlier job.
Watson said she disclosed to Corizon that she was involved in a malpractice lawsuit that was settled. She also said she had disclosed other lawsuits to her employer, which was a temp agency that worked with Corizon.
Struck also questioned the accuracy of Watson’s claim that there was only one doctor in the prison to care for 5,000 inmates. Watson acknowledged other doctors worked in the prison unit, but said there were days when she was the only doctor on duty there tending to patients.
Over the last year, the lawsuit has become a problem for the Arizona Department of Corrections. Duncan has voiced frustration over what he has described as the state’s “abject failure” to improve inmate health care after it settled allegations that inmates received shoddy health care.
Duncan scheduled another hearing for Wednesday to consider whether Corrections Director Charles Ryan should be held in civil contempt of court and whether the state should be fined for repeatedly falling short in improving health care for prisoners.
The judge has threatened to fine the state $1,000 for each instance in which the state failed to comply with the promised changes during December and January. The state has acknowledged more than 1,000 instances of noncompliance in December, meaning it could be fined as much as $1 million for that month alone.
The judge’s frustrations with the state grew in December when the email surfaced in which a Corizon employee asked for a cancellation of a prisoner’s infection-disease consultations because. “After 30 days we get nailed for 1,000 bucks a day until they are seen,” the Corizon employee wrote.
After a news report by National Public Radio member station KJZZ-FM revealed the email, a lawyer for the state acknowledged that the email is authentic but said there was a rational explanation for the comments.
Lawyers for the state are seeking to disqualify Duncan from presiding over the lawsuit, arguing the judge has demonstrated a bias by accusing prison officials of “lying through their teeth.”
Follow Jacques Billeaud at twitter.com/jacquesbilleaud. His work can be found at https://www.apnews.com/search/jacques%20billeaud.