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Prison Medical Director Claims Inmates Were Not Denied Health Care

The site medical director of an Arizona prison testified Wednesday that claims inmates were denied access to specialists were unfounded.

PHOENIX (CN) — The site medical director of an Arizona prison testified Wednesday that claims inmates were denied access to specialists were unfounded.

Rodney Stewart, site medical director at the Eyman prison complex and interim medical director at the Florence complex, testified as part of an evidentiary hearing into whether Arizona is violating a 2015 class action settlement it entered into after inmates filed suit over deficient medical care.

The hearing was prompted after Jan Watson, a doctor who worked at an Arizona prison last year, contacted a reporter for a local National Public Radio affiliate and provided him with emails detailing shortages in specialists for inmates.

In one email, Watson was told to cancel a pending infectious disease consultation for a prisoner because it had been “sitting there for 42 days” and “(a)fter 30 days we get nailed for 1,000 bucks per day until they are seen.”

Stewart told the court that consults were only cancelled if an inmate’s symptoms resolved or a provider asked for the wrong medical test to be performed.

“We might cancel where they are going because no one is willing to provide that service, but we will keep looking until we find someone that is willing to provide that service,” Stewart said.

He said consultations were not cancelled to avoid a finding of non-compliance or fines from the court.

“That doesn’t even come up in discussions,” Stewart testified. “All we are trying to do is get the work done.”

For each violation under the settlement, U.S. Magistrate Judge David Duncan has said he will fine the state $1,000.

The fines may run Arizona $1.8 million since the state has disclosed around 1,000 violations for the month of December and nearly 400 for January. Attorneys for the class say they have found an additional 420 violations not disclosed in the month of December.

At the start of the hearing, Duncan offered the parties a 23-minute soliloquy on what he thinks about the ongoing litigation.

“Why are we here? Why has this not just been done?” Duncan posed. “On some level there is a part of it that seems like a simple scratch-your-head kind of thing that you could explain to a second grader.”

Duncan said the violations of the settlement may boil down to staffing issues, which he has long suspected but been unable to act on under the agreement.

“Why should I not impose a dramatic measure to fix this?” he asked.

The judge also expressed frustrations with what he has heard on the witness stand.

“The equipoise that I started with has been affected by the conduct I have seen in this case,” Duncan said. “Ultimately it was the promise to meet the stipulation that is not being met that is at (the state’s) door.”

During Stewart's testimony, he questioned Watson’s claims she had difficulty getting morphine for cancer patients.

“As long as you follow policy and procedure, there should not be a reason for lapse in medication,” Stewart told the court.

Stewart said the unit Watson was assigned to suffered a backlog of chronic care patients to see that was greater than other units. He said that was because she would only see eight patients a day, instead of the 20 she was required to treat.

“She was not very efficient in her time,” he said.

The hearing continues March 26 and March 27.

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