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Arizona could face fines in lawsuit over prison health care

This Aug. 19, 2010 file photo shows Arizona Department of Corrections Director Charles Ryan at a news conference in Phoenix. (Ross D. Franklin / Associated Press)
This Aug. 19, 2010 file photo shows Arizona Department of Corrections Director Charles Ryan at a news conference in Phoenix. (Ross D. Franklin / Associated Press)
By Jacques Billeaud Associated Press

PHOENIX – A judge overseeing a class-action lawsuit over the quality of health care in Arizona’s prisons will hold hearings this week to determine whether to fine the state for falling short in improving care for inmates.

U.S. Magistrate David Duncan also will examine an allegation that the inmate-care provider skirted a promise Arizona made when it settled the lawsuit by denying care to an inmate to avoid paying a fine.

The hearings on Tuesday and Wednesday were called after the judge repeatedly voiced frustration over what he described as the state’s “abject failure” to carry out improvements it promised three years ago when it settled allegations that inmates were receiving shoddy health care.

Duncan has threatened to hold Corrections Director Charles Ryan and another prison official in civil contempt of court and fine the state $1,000 for each instance of noncompliance in December and January.

The state has acknowledged more than 1,000 such instances in December, meaning it could be fined as much as $1 million for that month alone. Arizona faces a Monday deadline for revealing instances of noncompliance in January, though the judge is letting some of that information be filed next month.

The areas in which Duncan is requiring improvements include ensuring newly prescribed medications be provided to inmates within two days and making medical providers tell inmates about the results of pathology reports and other diagnostic studies within five days of receiving such records.

Andrew Wilder, a Department of Corrections spokesman, declined to comment on the upcoming hearings.

Ryan said at a Feb. 13 hearing at the Legislature that his agency is making progress in complying with the settlement and that the state doesn’t plan to pay any fines that might be imposed.

“I’ve already made it perfectly clear to the vendor (that) you’re on the hook for that, not the state of Arizona,” Ryan said.

Corizon Health Inc. has served as the health care provider for Arizona’s prisons for the past five years. The company isn’t a target in the lawsuit.

Corene Kendrick, one of the attorneys representing more than 33,000 inmates in the lawsuit, said having the contractor pay would undermine the purpose of the fine, which is to force the state into improving care.

Kendrick said lawyers found an additional 420 instances of noncompliance that the state didn’t report to the court.

It’s up to Duncan to decide what to do with the fines. Kendrick said the proceeds would not end up in the hands of prisoners or their lawyers.

The judge’s frustrations with the state grew in December when an email surfaced in which a Corizon employee asked a doctor to cancel infection-disease consultations for an inmate because the company didn’t have a provider to send him to. The Sept. 18 email alluded to the judge’s threat to impose fines.

“After 30 days we get nailed for 1000 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, Duncan said the comments looked like an end-run around the court’s efforts to ensure the state is making the improvements.

A lawyer for the state acknowledged last month that the email is authentic but said there was a rational explanation for the comments.

“We feel confident that evidence will be presented in court next week that will discredit those allegations,” Corizon spokeswoman Martha Harbin said.

The 2012 lawsuit alleged that Arizona’s 10 state-run prisons didn’t meet the basic requirements for providing adequate medical and mental health care. It said some prisoners complained that their cancer went undetected or they were told to pray to be cured after begging for treatment.

It also alleged that the failure of the medical staff at one prison to diagnose an inmate’s metastasized cancer resulted in his liver enlarging so much that his stomach swelled to the size of a pregnant woman at full term. Another inmate who had a history of prostate cancer had to wait more than two years for a biopsy.

The state denied allegations that it was providing inadequate care. The lawsuit was settled in 2014 without the state acknowledging any wrongdoing.

This isn’t the first time the Corrections Department has faced criticism from the judge.

Over the summer, Duncan grilled Ryan in court over whether he tried to undermine an order that prohibited retaliation against prisoners who participated in the lawsuit.

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