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Special Hearing Investigating Corizon Health Continues In Federal Court

A special hearing investigating the state’s private correctional health care provider continued in federal court Wednesday in Phoenix.

Dr. Rodney Stewart faced a full day on the stand, responding to allegations made in an article published by KJZZ on prison health care conditions in Arizona.

Stewart is the medical director for the Eyman prison in Florence, Arizona, where Dr. Jan Watson alleged she witnessed several instances of improper medical care.

Questioned by an attorney for the state, Rachel Love, Stewart painted a different picture of the conditions at Eyman.

Stewart confirmed Watson’s allegations that the health care provider, Corizon, was behind on chronic care with many of the patients at the prison.

“It was very difficult,” Stewart said of the shortage of doctors at the prison. “Catching up with the chronic-care issue was nearly impossible – we were really struggling.”

Stewart described the workload as “crushing” and said Watson’s responsibility, the Cook yard at Eyman, was an “especially tough yard.”

Stewart confirmed previous testimony about a Corizon program called “Operation Backlog,” which sought to decrease a backlog of chronic care patients that totaled more than 800. Stewart also stated that these operations, also referred to internally as a “blitz,” occurred several times during 2017. Stewart testified he believed the backlog had been eliminated by January 2018.

While Stewart admitted Watson was “famously popular” among the inmates she treated at Eyman, he said she did not get along with her colleagues.

Throughout the day, Stewart portrayed Watson as the reason for the chronic care backlogs and medicine shortages she alleged were the fault of Corizon.

“You’re cheating the next guy,” Stewart said in regard to what he said was Watson’s habit of spending too much time with her patients. Stewart said Watson was only seeing eight patients a day, while Watson testified previously she would treat 20 to 30 patients in a day.

Stewart told the judge that Watson was rude and took offense when Corizon employees attempted to help her fill out her paperwork.

But Stewart testified that Watson was not the only provider struggling to keep up.

“There was a problem, but the problem was systemwide,” he said. “It wasn’t really specific to her, but her performance wasn’t helping.”

Stewart testified that Watson “did surgical procedures well” but had been cited for leaving out sharp objects after operating on an inmate, against DOC policy. Watson previously testified that she had received only two of the five mandatory days of DOC training when she arrived at Eyman, because of the provider shortage.

Stewart testified that Watson had made several errors in diagnoses as well as requests for consultations, which Watson claimed were repeatedly denied.

“We don’t deny,” Stewart said. “We offer alternatives.”

Stewart went through several scenarios where he said Watson’s requests for specialty consultations were either unnecessary or improperly submitted. He denied, as Watson had alleged, that any consultations were ever cancelled to save Corizon money.

Stewart also denied Watson’s allegations that he had ordered her to let a patient die.

“That’s not me,” Stewart said.

He told the judge he was hurt by the suggestion that he would allow an inmate to die, explaining that he believed there was no other course of action to take to treat the patient’s extensive cardiac disease.

“We allow inmates to pass – not infrequently,” Stewart said. “Patients who have a terminal illness often request to die and pass.”

While Stewart said the inmate accepted the treatment plan he had offered, Watson testified that the inmate was not given all of the information provided by a specialist about his condition. She told the court previously that Stewart’s explanation of the inmate’s condition did not match what she read in his chart.

Stewart flatly denied ever having used or heard the phrase “beat the monitor,” which Watson said an ADC monitoring official told a group of providers at a meeting. Watson interpreted the language as a way to cheat the monitoring system.

Stewart will next face cross-examination by attorneys representing the inmates at a yet-to-be-determined date.

Outside Consultant Reviewing Staffing Shortages

During the hearing, the court heard an update from a private consultant brought in by the judge at the state’s expense to determine why Corizon cannot reach employment benchmarks agreed to in its contract.

B.J. Millar of the Advisory Board Company said his team has been reviewing information provided by Corizon for calendar year 2017.

Millar said the overall staffing at the Perryville women’s prison did not reach budget levels for the entire year. For a 25-week period in 2017, Millar said, Perryville had no medical director.

Millar said physician staffing never reached budget levels either, noting there was not a single week in 2017 that reached the budgeted level for medical staff.

With the approval of Magistrate Judge David Duncan, attorneys for the state and attorneys for the inmates, Millar said he would expand the evaluation to all 10 state-run prisons. Millar said that analysis would be ready for the court in April.

Jimmy Jenkins is a senior field correspondent at KJZZ and a contributor to NPR’s Election 2020 and Criminal Justice station collaborations. His work has been featured on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Marketplace, Here and Now, The Takeaway and NPR Newscasts.Originally from Terre Haute, Indiana, Jenkins has a B.S. in criminology from Indiana State University and a master’s degree in journalism from Indiana University.Much of his reporting has focused on the criminal justice system. Jenkins has reported on Tasers, body cameras, use of force, jail privatization, prison health care and the criminal contempt trial of former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.