05/23/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Now That We Have the "Right" To Health Care, How Will We Be Assured The "Duties" Will Be Performed?

Today, President Obama extended all Americans a "right" that prisoners already possess: health care.

But, the right to health care means nothing unless the duty to provide the health care is actually performed.

Thus, we must look to prison health care to understand the concept that the right to health care does not necessarily mean that those who have the duty to provide the health care will actually do their job.

Sure, America is a free country; however, if you break the laws, you will be punished, your freedom will be taken from you and you will be locked-up. But, America is not a barbaric society and just because one loses his freedom, he does not lose his right to health care. Or should he?

Like it or not, America has a duty to provide health care to its prisoners.

My client is dying of cancer in prison because the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) and its private contractor, Wexford Health Sources, have chosen not to treat her. She was diagnosed with metastatic cervical cancer in January 2009 but was not treated until August 2009.

The blatant disregard for my client's health continues: despite her numerous complaints that she has pain in her chest and back, she has trouble breathing, and she is losing over a pound a week, IDOC/Wexford still chooses not to seek diagnosis and or treatment. As recently as a few weeks ago, she was even taken to the emergency room of Decatur Memorial Hospital. Finally, tests were performed (there and at Southern Illinois University) and a doctor noticed an apparent tumor on her lung. But, instead of performing a biopsy or seeking immediate treatment, my client was sent back to IDOC. Still, as of today, she remains untreated.

In an interview with Steve Twedt of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Wexford President Mark Hale said,

"There's no financial incentive on their [Wexford employees] part to do anything but practice the best medical care. They are paid a salary -- they don't get paid by the procedure."

So maybe the guaranteed salary is the reason why the IDOC and Wexford refuse to treat my client expeditiously? Because everyone gets paid regardless of their failure to treat the inmate?

Last year, Shaena Fazal, of the John Howard Association of Illinois testified before the House Prison Reform Committee, She emphasized the prisons' duty to provide health care:

Even if the public health cost or the loss of human life as a result of denial of health care doesn't offend you, consider that the failure to provide these health services results in real and costly adverse effects to local communities.

For example, in 2008, a jury awarded 4 prisoners at Logan Correctional Center an 8 million dollar award after finding IDOC's policy of withholding treatment for Hepatitis C cruel and unusual punishment. The finding was based on an IDOC policy which prevented Hepatitis C treatment to prisoners with less than 18 months remaining on their sentences. The cost to taxpayers is huge. The public is out 8 million dollars, not counting the consider public dollars spent on litigation.

In 2004, California spent $1 billion in health care for its prison inmates and that amount still wasn't enough to provide proper care.

"Twenty percent of the physicians that work at CDC have either a bad mark on their record or a series of malpractice lawsuits -- a figure that is four to five times higher than the general population of physicians in California." Article here.

In August 2009, a federal judge panel ordered the California prison system to reduce its inmate population of 150,000 by 40,000 -- roughly 27 percent -- within two years. Health care has been so bad that at least one "unnecessary" death is caused per week.

My client has had the right to health care longer than any free American who has been living without insurance. Clearly, even though she has the right, she has not received the care.
Now that all Americans will have health care, we must ask our President and elected leaders, "How will we get proper health care? How can we be assured that those who are given the duty to provide us with health care will actually perform their duty?"