- Associated Press - Friday, June 24, 2016

PHOENIX (AP) - Attorneys who brought a class-action lawsuit over the quality of health care in Arizona’s prisons said Friday that the state is trying to skirt a requirement in a settlement that mental health professionals see inmates who have recently been taken off psychotropic medications.

They say Arizona wants to get around the requirement that prisoners be seen within 30 days after being taken off such drugs by reclassifying their status as patients so the settlement doesn’t apply to them.

The dispute over the follow-up visits arose after attorneys who challenged health services in the prisons complained the state that was dragging its feet in making improvements required by the settlement.

U.S. Magistrate David Duncan later ordered the state to draft a plan for meeting requirements that set deadlines for when inmates are given medications and seen by health providers.

Duncan approved most of the plan at a court hearing Friday, but expressed skepticism about whether it would improve services. He declined to approve the section focusing on inmates taken off psychotropic drugs. Instead, he instructed lawyers to try to resolve the dispute on their own.

Duncan said his first inclination was to reject the state’s plan, but eventually decided to approve most of it to give it a chance to work. “If it doesn’t work, we are going to be sitting in this room for a long time together,” Duncan said.

Daniel Struck, a lawyer representing the state, told Duncan that he understands his concerns. “We certainly hear you loud and clear,” Struck said.

Struck said health workers were overly cautious in the past in making characterizations about some inmates who had taken psychotropic medications. He said the inmates in question were inaccurately classified because they hadn’t taken the medications for several years.

Lawyers representing the inmates are seeking records to show when the classifications were changed and who was responsible for making inaccurate characterizations of patients. They said patients taken off such drugs need to be monitored in case their conditions worsen.

The 2014 settlement was won on behalf of 33,000 Arizona inmates after some complained that their cancer went undetected or they were told to pray to be cured after begging for treatment.

The lawyers who challenged the quality of health care in state prisons contend health services there haven’t improved since the settlement. They accused the state of inflating its compliance figures and failing to carry out many requirements called for by the agreement.

The lawsuit against Arizona Department of Corrections Director Charles Ryan and another prison official alleged the failure of medical staff at one prison to diagnose the metastasized cancer of one inmate resulted in his liver enlarging so his stomach swelled to the size of a pregnant woman at full term.

Prison officials have denied the allegations and didn’t acknowledge any wrongdoing in making the settlement.

The prisoners weren’t seeking monetary damages and instead asked for a court order declaring that Arizona’s prisons violated the Eighth Amendment right of inmates against cruel and unusual punishment.

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Follow Jacques Billeaud at twitter.com/jacquesbilleaud. His work can be found at https://bigstory.ap.org/content/jacques-billeaud.

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