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House committee advances bill creating prison medical oversight panel

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A state House committee on Tuesday unanimously voted to advance a bill to create a medical advisory panel to oversee healthcare in the state prison system. But amendments adopted by the committee would place prison officials, rather than outside doctors, on the panel and remove some of the panel’s authority. 

As filed, the bill, brought by Rep. Larry Selders, Democrat of Baton Rouge, was intended to create professional medical oversight of health services by the Department of Public Safety and Corrections, which has repeatedly been accused of providing inadequate care. The committee would have been composed of doctors representing a number of medical disciplines as well as the director of the state Department of Health and deans of several medical schools.

But rather than consisting outside medical experts, as first proposed, the committee will instead consist of the medical directors of the eight state-run prisons across Louisiana, and the department-wide medical director, which will submit quarterly reports to the Louisiana Department of Health. 

According to Bruce Reilly, deputy director of Voice of the Experienced, a criminal justice reform organization that worked on the bill, the changes in the bill were due to objections from the Louisiana Department of Corrections. 

“The DOC didn’t want any sort of outside medical engagement,” Reilly said after the vote. “They wanted to keep it all in-house.” 

A spokesperson for the DOC did not respond to requests for comment on the bill. While a lawyer for the department was present during the committee meeting, she did not give any testimony.

The original bill would have also given the committee an “advise and consent” role in hiring a DOC medical director to oversee the statewide system, but that portion was also removed on Tuesday. Advocates had hoped that by having an outside committee sign off on a candidate for the job would ensure the medical director would have qualifications that would be considered appropriate for someone being hired to run a series of community clinics not inside of the prisons. 

The current DOC medical director, Randy Lavespere, was convicted of possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine in 2006, and subsequently had his medical license revoked. But a few years later, Lavespere was placed on “indefinite probation,” which allowed him to work in institutional settings — such as prisons. 

Lavespere is not alone. Louisiana prisons are filled with doctors who have had issues with their credentials.  Last year, Buzzfeed News reported that ten out of the 12 physicians working in the state  prison system — including six medical directors — had their licenses restricted or suspended at some point. 

Dr. Anjali Niyogi, a professor at Tulane and the founder of the Formerly Incarcerated Transition Clinic, which provides care for people getting out of prison, testified on Tuesday the tarnished credentials of prison doctors can follow patients even when they get out of prison. Part of the impetus for starting the FIT clinic, she said, was the fact that pharmacies wouldn’t fill the prescriptions written by the DOC physicians with restricted licenses. 

“If the physician writing the prescription doesn’t have a valid license, the pharmacy cannot fill that prescription,” Niyogi said. “And so now you have these patients that are getting released with high blood pressure, diabetes, etc. And then they come to my hospital, and they come into my ICU, and I have to care for them there.”

But with the proposed committee now consisting of people already working within DOC, the amended bill that was advanced on Tuesday likely won’t lead to any significant changes to the qualifications of the medical director or other physicians working in the department. 

Reilly said he was frustrated that doctors working in prisons, where patients have no choice about who to see, is one of the few places lawmakers seemed to have room for forgiveness.

“For some reason when it comes to doctors in the prisons, everybody’s about second chances,” Reilly said. “Are they about that for lawyers? For judges? For tenants trying to rent an apartment? Why is doctors in prisons the one where everyone is wholeheartedly about second chances?” 

Healthcare in the Louisiana prison system has come under scrutiny in several recent lawsuits, and a federal judge ruled last year that the state’s largest prison — Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola — was in violation of the constitution for being deliberately indifferent to the medical needs of people in custody. 

The bill will now move to the full House of Representatives for consideration. 

“The good news is we kept it alive,” Reilly said, noting that there could be further adjustments to the bill as it works through the legislative process. 

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