TB lawsuit will cost Ramsey County millions

  • Article by: CHRIS HAVENS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 11, 2010 - 5:48 AM

Ramsey County and former inmates exposed to tuberculosis while in custody at the workhouse have reached a deal for cash and free medical care.

Ramsey County and a group of former workhouse inmates who contracted or were exposed to tuberculosis while in custody have reached a tentative settlement that could reach $10 million.

Both sides are seeking approval from U.S. District Judge Richard Kyle to have the settlement be a class action because there could be 100 or more people in line to receive compensation that includes medical care and cash.

The inmates sued in October 2008, claiming the county didn't properly test an infected inmate, and intense negotiations have gone on since. Attorneys for both sides called the proposed deal a major compromise.

"I think we've achieved a positive result and outcome for inmates who, through no fault of their own, contracted a terrible disease," said Robert Bennett, lead attorney for the plaintiffs.

A second related federal lawsuit filed by the original infected inmate is pending. It seeks $14 million in damages.

If the class-action agreement is approved, the county would admit no fault. "By settling the case, the county is able to focus on looking forward rather than backward," said Cliff Greene, whose firm, Greene Espel, worked on the case for the county.

It's difficult to pinpoint exactly how much money will be spent, but it will come from the county's self-insurance fund. Taxpayer money is budgeted to fill that fund every year.

Under the proposed settlement, the county would pay for claims as they come in, not cut one big check that would be divided among the eligible people. That means the costs could be spread over a few budgets.

"The driving force behind this settlement was public health," said Victoria Reinhardt, chairwoman of the Ramsey County Board.

Since the TB was discovered, the county has been taking steps to make sure the infection doesn't return. The county hired a consultant who made recommendations on fixing the air system and changing other procedures at the Ramsey County Correctional Facility. Additional medical staff members have been added, and inmates are being screened for TB more quickly after arriving at the workhouse.

Active and latent

According to the state Department of Health:

There are two types of tuberculosis: active disease and latent infection, both caused by a bacterium, mycobacterium tuberculosis. The disease can affect any part of the body, although it's most common in the lungs and spreads when someone with active TB in the lungs coughs, sneezes or talks and others breathe in the bacteria. Only people with active TB can spread it, and people generally need to be in close contact for many hours to get it.

People with latent TB have a 10 percent chance of getting the full-blown disease if they don't get treated. Treatment usually involves a 9-month medicine regimen.

Between 30 and 35 people with active TB are treated each year in Ramsey County and about 700 people are treated with latent TB.

There are a number of variables with the proposed agreement because of potential complications from the disease and the number of people who actually come forward to request compensation.

The settlement would cover inmates who were at the workhouse between April 17, 2008, and June 9, 2008. After the infected inmates came forward, the county sought out people who were there during that time and offered to test them for the disease. About 170 former inmates tested negative, while 93 tested positive for latent infection and seven tested positive for active TB. Nearly 200 more people need to be tested.

Up to $500,000 apiece

Former inmates who have active TB will receive one-time payments of $250,000 and free annual checkups. There's also a process where they could get up to an additional $250,000 if complications arise related to the original diagnosis.

People with latent TB would get one-time cash payments of $54,300 if they show they have completed treatment. Those who don't go through the drug treatment would receive $44,300. Annual checkups would be free. If someone with latent TB develops the active form of the disease, the payment would increase to $200,000.

Inmates who haven't been tested will be offered screening and would be eligible for the benefits if they have either form of the disease.

Inmates and former inmates who test negative for TB will receive no benefits.

National health organizations that track TB say that about 30 percent of all active cases can be traced to jails and prisons. The incidence of TB in jails and prisons is 40 times higher than the population outside the walls, the Red Cross reported.

Staff writer Kevin Giles contributed to this report. Chris Havens • 612-673-4148

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