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Washington State: Class-action Alleges DOC Policy of Denying Medical Care

Washington State: Class-action Alleges DOC Policy of Denying Medical Care

by Derek Gilna

A federal class-action suit filed on November 17, 2015 claims that the Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC) has promulgated and carried out a policy of denying necessary medical care to prisoners with serious health problems. According to the complaint, DOC officials often overrule their own clinicians who recommend medical treatment.

The “DOC denies patient-prisoners access to constitutional medical care by utilizing a healthcare preapproval system that regularly results in arbitrary and unsound decisions ... by allowing a committee of ... administrators who have little familiarity with the patient to override the clinical recommendations of the patient’s treating DOC practitioner and outside specialists,” the lawsuit states.

The four named plaintiffs in the case, who seek to represent a class of almost 17,000 prisoners in Washington’s prison system, suffer from a variety of undiagnosed, untreated or inadequately treated medical conditions, including stage-three kidney disease, painful hernias, wrist and hand pain, and other serious ailments causing chronic pain and suffering.

According to DOC policies, “Medical care for Washington prisoners is provided according to the terms of an ... Offender Health Plan (OHP).” If a prisoner requires care not specified in the OHP, his or her request goes before the Care Review Committee (CRC), which consists of DOC physicians, physician assistants and nurse practitioners who vote to either approve or deny the requested treatment. Each CRC session lasts no more than two hours, and the committee members review up to 20 individual cases in that short time period. The plaintiffs allege that over 60% of requests for medical care are denied.

Merf Ehman, a staff attorney with Columbia Legal Services (CLS), said the “DOC is required to provide constitutionally adequate medical care to prisoners. Denial of necessary medical care by prison officials is a violation of the Eighth Amendment, which forbids the use of cruel and unusual punishments.” He also noted that prisoners are generally physiologically ten years older than their chronological age and have more medical issues than in the general population, which makes the denial of necessary medical care even more problematic.

That is significant, Ehman said, because “More than 97 percent of the people now behind bars will someday leave prison – about 7,000 a year from [the] DOC. Providing prisoners with necessary medical care today will result in healthier communities tomorrow [since] studies show that released prisoners often have worse health and a higher risk of death than the general public.”

The plaintiffs’ attorneys and Washington DOC officials are reportedly engaged in settlement negotiations, and the case remains pending. The prisoners are represented by Columbia Legal Services, Public Interest Law Group and the law firm of MacDonald Hoague & Bayless. See: Haldane v. Hammond, U.S.D.C. (W.D. Wash.), Case No. 2:15-cv-01810-RAJ.


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Related legal case

Haldane v. Hammond