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Idaho takes aim at prison health care report

By Rebecca Boone

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, April 3 2012 8:28 a.m. MDT

BOISE, Idaho — The Idaho Department of Correction is telling a federal judge that a scathing report about health care at a Boise-area prison isn't accurate and doesn't reflect current conditions at the lockup.

Attorneys for the state filed their response to the report late last week, contending that a court-appointed health care expert didn't conduct a thorough review and misrepresented conditions at the Idaho State Correctional Institution.

Dr. Marc Stern was appointed as a special master in the case and ordered by the federal court to examine the medical and mental health care provided at the prison as part of a lawsuit between inmates and the state. U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill has said he will use Stern's findings to help him decide whether to end the 30-year-old lawsuit or continue overseeing operations at the prison.

Stern's report was damning, finding that the medical care was so poor that it amounted to neglect and cruel and unusual punishment. Among other problems, Stern said that terminal and long-term inmates sometimes went unfed or were left in soiled bedclothes, that nursing mistakes likely resulted in deaths, and that one inmate wasn't told for seven months that he likely had cancer.

But in their response filed Friday, attorneys for the state denied that any serious problems existed with the delivery of medical or mental health care at the prison. They also said the Idaho Department of Correction and its medical care contractor, the Brentwood, Tenn.-based Corizon, continue to reform and improve the delivery of medical and mental health care.

For instance, the state argued, one inmate in the long-term care unit required help for eating and drinking and has on occasion refused meals and liquids. Still, the state noted, the inmate gained weight during his nearly nine-year stay in the unit, suggesting an occasional missed meal was causing no harm to be done.

Stern's report didn't reflect changes made in the six-month span between his first and second visits to the prison, the state's attorneys said. That violates the court's order that Stern determine whether inmates are experiencing "current and ongoing" violations of their Eighth Amendment rights, the state attorneys contended.

The state said Stern relied on a few cases to reach conclusions for some findings, and suggested he may have cherry-picked files to support his conclusions, instead of taking a random sample or reviewing the files of larger groups of patients.

The state backed up its claims by frequently citing audits that Corizon performed on itself that found no problems with the delivery of health care.

For instance, Idaho's attorneys argued in their filing, Stern relied on situations involving three inmates to support his finding that health care providers at ISCI were deliberately indifferent to patients in their outpatient clinic.

"However, even if accurately reported, the three isolated instances do not establish a class-wide constitutional deprivation at a facility with a daily average inmate count nearing 1700 individuals," the attorneys for the state wrote.

The state also contended that Stern's expectations for prison health care were unrealistic.

The National Commission of Correctional Health Care, an organization that sets accreditation standards for prisons, only requires that prisons meet 85 percent of the performance standards in order to become accredited, the state noted. The Idaho State Correctional Institution has been accredited by the organization.

"In sum, the Special Master's apparent insistence upon 100 percent compliance with his purported standards is unrealistic and completely divorced from the well-known standards for constitutional health care," the attorneys wrote.

The inmates at the prison filed a response to Stern's report, saying his findings came as no surprise to those living at the prison. They noted that Stern gave his initial findings to attorneys on both sides and offered them the opportunity to provide additional information or rebut his conclusions.

Winmill has asked the inmates and the state to take part in mediation to see if they can find any common ground for ending the lawsuit. The mediation sessions, which are closed to the public, are set to begin this week.

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