SCRANTON, Pa. (CN) - Pennsylvania faces a federal class action over its policy of allegedly denying surgical treatment to inmates if they have at least "one good eye."
"The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, by policy and practice systematically denies necessary medical care for inmates with serious eye conditions including severe cataracts, thereby condemning them to partial or total blindness," the Jan. 2 complaint states.
Richard Hollihan, a ward of the state Corrections Department since 1986, brought the class action over Pennsylvania's alleged failure to give him a second cataract surgery.
Though the state removed the cataract from Hollihan's right eye in 2001, the same year he was transferred to Somerset, he says doctors have been recommending that he undergo cataract surgery in his left eye since 2008.
The problem is so severe that Hollihan has trouble reading and writing, will "frequently walk into people and objects," and is substantially limited in his ability to perform manual tasks, according to the complaint.
"On information and belief, defendant DOC [Department of Corrections], has adopted an official policy and practice that denies necessary surgical treatment to inmates with a severe eye disease in one eye, but with another eye that provides some level of vision that defendant DOC claims to be adequate," the complaint states. "This policy is referred to as the 'One Good Eye' policy.
"As a consequence of defendant DOC's 'One Good Eye' policy, inmates are denied necessary surgical treatment for cataracts and other conditions and are forced to languish with serious eye conditions, which can cause legal or total blindness in the diseased eye."
Hollihan says the policy is medically unjustified.
"Reducing expenditures by denying necessary medical care is not an appropriate justification for the 'One Good Eye' policy," the complaint states.
The system's guidelines allegedly include four exceptions to refusing cataract surgery: if the inmate's vision tests at 20/50 or worse, despite corrective devices; if there is a potential for undetected retinal disease; if the cataract is hypermature; or if the inmate's activities are "significantly compromised" and cannot be corrected by eyeglasses lighting.
Hollihan says that the department actually does not follow the guidelines, refusing necessary surgery to inmates "including those who have a hypermature cataract in one eye and vision that is worse than 20/50 in the better-seeing eye." (Emphasis in original.)
Cataracts cause "reversible blindness," Hollihan claims, adding that they may grow larger and more dense over time, resulting in increased clouding of the lens and decreased vision.
"Waiting to perform surgery until a cataract is hypermature may result in a worse surgical outcome than if surgery had been performed earlier," the complaint states.
Hollihan also says that the policy means that inmates "will stay blind in an eye that could be surgically corrected to provide good vision."
The cataract in Hollihan's left eye "prevents the detection of retinal disease and optic nerve health," according to the complaint.
Hollihan also says that his "better-seeing eye is deteriorating due to the stress caused by the loss of sight in his cataract-afflicted eye."
In addition to the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, defendants to the action include two prison officials, Wexford Health Sources, and three doctors.
The class seeks punitive damages for violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Rehabilitation Act. It is represented by Thomas Schmidt III, Eric Rothschild and Eric Wolfish of Pepper Hamilton, and by David Rudovsky of Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing & Feinberg in Philadelphia.
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