As many as one in six deaths of California prison inmates last year might have been preventable, says a study of medical care in 32 state lockups reported by the Los Angeles Times. One inmate, who reported extreme chest pains in the middle of the night, died of a heart ailment after waiting eight hours to see a doctor. Another who complained for days of severe abdominal pain died of acute pancreatitis after medical staff did not believe his pleas were credible.
The report, released yesterday by the court-appointed receiver in charge of health care for the state’s 173,000 prisoners, showed a broad pattern of delays in diagnosis, poor inmate access to doctors and tests, botched handling of medical records, and failure of medical staff to recognize and treat dangerous conditions. There were 426 deaths in 2006, including 43 suicides. Eighteen deaths were found to be preventable, meaning better medical management or a better system of care would have prevented them. Another 48 were found to be “possibly preventable,” meaning better medical management of a system of care might have prevented death. Of the deaths considered preventable, six were from asthma, which receiver Robert Sillen said he intended to make a priority for reforms. He told the Times that “adults in 21st century California should not have asthma as a primary cause of death.” Sillen said the report, which concluded that problems such as human error, staffing shortages, and poor medical records contributed to unnecessary deaths, provided more evidence that the state’s $1.5-billion-a-year medical care system needed to be rebuilt from the bottom up.