David Picard was weeks away from walking out of the Lino Lakes state prison a free man when he was hit with a severe respiratory infection.
Instead, he died as a prisoner who was criticized in his final hours for seeking health care too often.
Now, three nurses from the Minnesota Department of Corrections and two prison officials have been accused of negligence in a federal lawsuit that accuses them of repeatedly failing to provide Picard with proper medical care in the days leading up to his death.
The lawsuit, brought by Picard’s family, was filed Friday in U.S. District Court in St. Paul.
Picard’s case is the latest incident to raise questions about the rationed-care strategy governing medical services for Minnesota’s 9,800 prison inmates. Last May, the Department of Corrections paid $400,000 to the family of an inmate who died in 2010 after a nightlong bout of seizures in his cell at the prison in Rush City. And the Minnesota Legislative Auditor is reviewing the department’s medical and medication coverage, questioning medical staff about whether prisoners receive adequate care from a for-profit contract provider.
According to the suit filed Friday, Picard sought emergency care for respiratory ailments five times over a three-day period before his death. Each time, nurses and prison officers denied him access to a doctor, even as his condition worsened, according to medical records reviewed by the Star Tribune.
On the third day, Picard, 32, was found on the floor of the prison’s health services unit by a nurse who asked him why he’d once again sought emergency care. Picard, so weak that he could barely speak, told the nurse that “my lungs are full and I’m having a hard time breathing,” records show.
The nurse, Jane Welch, noted that she did not detect any breathing problems in Picard’s lungs, then sent him back to his cell. Welch then wrote a note in Picard’s medical chart reminding herself to speak to her supervisor about Picard’s “overuse of health services.”
The next morning, after corrections officers found Picard at his cell door “ gasping and wheezing, trying to speak,” he was sent by ambulance to St. Joseph’s Hospital in St. Paul. There, doctors found he was going into shock, suffering from respiratory and acute renal failure. He suffered three cardiac arrests that night and died. The cause of his death was acute bilateral pneumonia and sepsis.
“Had nurses consulted a physician, a competent physician would have ordered Picard be taken to the hospital or at least be given a chest x-ray which would have revealed pneumonia,” the complaint alleges. His family is seeking $1 million in damages.
Officials from the Department of Corrections declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.
Picard, of Montevideo, was serving a four-month sentence for a parole violation connected to a previous burglary conviction. Records show that the prison’s medical staff knew of his medical and mental health symptoms, which included seizures, diabetic-like symptoms, depression and anxiety.
In October, the department severed its longtime relationship with Corizon Inc., a national for-profit contractor that was furnishing prison medical care for Minnesota at the time of Picard’s death. It hired Centurion Managed Care under a two-year, $67 million contract. Centurion is owned by Centene Corp., a national, publicly traded health care company based in St. Louis. State officials declined to say Friday whether Centurion’s contract calls for a different standard of inmate medical care.