About 1,800 current and former Florida prison inmates who were denied medical care for hernias will be entitled to divide $1.7 million in damages from a class-action lawsuit under a conditional settlement agreed to by the Department of Corrections and its former prison health-care provider, Corizon, and filed in federal court in Tallahassee last week.
The suit was brought by the Florida Justice Institute and the Coral Gables law firm of Kozyak Tropin & Throckmorton in September 2015 on behalf of three inmates. It alleged Corizon and the agency violated the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments by denying the inmates medical care in an effort to save money.
The damages will be paid by Corizon, but the settlement agreement also requires the state prison system to adopt a new policy to provide consultations with surgeons for inmates with hernia symptoms in all Florida facilities.
“Obviously, the inmates are there for a reason. We are not trying to make their time in detention a country club, but there is a responsibility to provide humane conditions for their incarceration and in this case we achieved a big step in making sure the medical treatment complies with the standard of care in the industry,” said Ken Hartman, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs.
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U.S. District Court Judge Robert Hinkle gave preliminary approval to the settlement at the March 29 hearing but because several of the affected inmates are residing in other states, the settlement requires that their state attorneys general be notified and given an opportunity to object to the agreement. Hinkle said he would enter a final an order in 100 days.
Corizon would not comment on the settlement, citing the fact that it had not been finalized. Corizon denies any wrongdoing.
Ashley Cook, spokesperson for the Florida Department of Corrections, would not comment on the specifics of the agreement.
“The health and safety of our inmates is a top priority of the department, and we take any allegations regarding their well-being very seriously,” she said, adding: “Corizon no longer provides medical services to the department’s inmates.’’
But two months after the lawsuit was filed in September 2015, Tennessee-based Corizon announced it would not renew its $1.1 billion contract with the state to provide healthcare to an estimated 74,000 of the inmates in the state’s prison system. In February 2015, FDC was ordered to renegotiate the medical contract by Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, after a series of reports in the Miami Herald and other news organizations showed suspicious inmate deaths were covered up or never reviewed and inmate complaints of harmful medical care were dismissed or ignored.
In April 2016, Centurion of Florida, LLC, a joint venture between Centene Corporation and MHM Services, Inc., replaced Corizon as the medical provider in Florida’s prisons.
“The chief goal of this litigation was to reform the way that FDOC treated patients with symptomatic hernias,” the settlement states. “Before this litigation, the practice was to refuse to provide surgeries, or even surgical consultations — despite the recommendations of doctors — unless the patient was experiencing an emergency ...”
Although the settlement does not require the agency to order a surgery if a doctor recommends it, the agency may not unreasonably refuse to allow it.
A hernia occurs when the abdominal wall tears or weakens, forcing other tissue through the opening. It can cause intense pain and further problems if left untreated. The plaintiffs' proposed final order settlement states the agency and Corizon for years engaged “in a pattern of not permitting FDOC prisoners to have hernia surgeries, by denying them at various levels.”
“These scenarios played out for years, resulting in thousands of prisoners being left in severe pain, unable to engage in normal life activities, and at risk for serious complications or death,’’ the plaintiffs' proposed settlement says.
Although the initial compliant was filed on behalf of three inmates Amado Parra, Archie Green, and Tracy Copeland and detailed the stories of 15 current and former prisoners, after the lengthy examination of the agency and Corizon’s health care records, the scope of the lawsuit was broadened to cover hundreds more.
A consent order between the parties was reached on Sept. 23, 2016, to cover “all past and current prisoners in FDOC custody who were diagnosed with and/or treated for a hernia between Sept. 8, 2013 and May 31, 2016” while Corizon was the medical provider for that prison facility.
To determine which current and former inmates were eligible, the lawyers reviewed all the medical records of inmates who arrived at the sick bays in Florida prisons during that time period and found the cases coded for a hernia condition, Hartman said. They also posted a notice in each of Florida’s prison facilities and collected the names of hundreds more eligible inmates.
The settlement will be divided among the class members by giving $1.7 million to the affected inmates, divided into two subclasses: 308 will each receive about $2,760 each because a request for a surgical consultation was submitted and potentially denied, and 1,480 who exhibited symptoms but were denied a surgical consultation will receive about $574.
Attorneys will be paid $385,000 and the three individuals named in the lawsuit will be paid an additional $5,000 each.