BUTNER — The same middleman arrangement that may keep Dukes health care system and a host of local doctors from recovering more than $8 million theyre owed for treating inmates at the Federal Correctional Complex at Butner could also prevent a former prisoner from being compensated for the loss of his penis.
Greg Baker, 48, of Hamilton, Ohio, is suing the federal government in U.S. District Court. He claims that while he was incarcerated at Butner in 2009, delays in examining and testing a lesion went on for months. When it was finally found to be cancerous, it was too late to save his penis and most had to be amputated.
Part of the governments response in court is that it cant be held liable because a middleman company called MDI had responsibility. The Federal Bureau of Prisons had a contract with MDI, based in Ponte Verde, Fla., to administer health care for prisoners at Butner.
Primary medical care is provided by federal employees, but the prison system contracted MDI to staff specialty clinics there with doctors and to administer care performed outside the prison.
Last month, Wells Fargo won a $30 million judgment against MDI and also persuaded a judge to place MDIs remaining assets under the control of a receiver. Wells Fargos suit alleged that MDI engaged in troubling financial behavior, including nearly $5 million in loans to a rustic Angus cattle and horse farm owned by its CEO and to a company that held rights to his biography and a screenplay about him. Also, it cited the companys lease of a $110,000 Tesla electric sports car.
Earlier this year, MDI stopped paying the health care providers it contracted with to provide treatment to Butner prisoners, according to officials at the N.C. Medical Society. It owes Duke medical system about $8.3 million and owes tens of thousands of dollars to several local medical practices.
Wells Fargo is first in line for any money recovered from MDI, and other creditors believe there wont be anything left for them.
Several of the local doctors who are owed money said in interviews last week that they feel the prison system should be liable for the bills, because they were treating prisoners. The Medical Society is trying to determine whether thats possible.
Its unclear whether MDI even exists now. No one answered the phone at MDIs Florida headquarters, and the court-appointed receiver didnt return phone calls last week.
A spokesman for the Federal Bureau of Prisons said Friday that it does not comment on ongoing litigation, including Bakers case. A spokesman for the U.S. Attorneys Office in Raleigh said he would not comment, either.
Trying to see a doctor
Baker served 18 months at Butner beginning Sept. 8, 2008, after being convicted of possession of a firearm by a person previously charged with domestic violence. His attorney, E.J. Hurst of Durham, said Baker was attending a NASCAR race in Virginia when a law enforcement officer found a handgun in a container stowed inside his recreational vehicle.
According to the complaint in the lawsuit, Baker was treated in January 2009 for a narrowing in his urethra, and a biopsy of that found no problem. But about the same time, he noticed the lesion and began asking for it to be examined, Hurst said. It was initially misdiagnosed as a sore from herpes, according to the suit.
Baker continued to seek treatment as the lesion grew and caused more and more pain.
But, Hurst said, medical workers with the prison didnt take his case seriously, and when they did schedule proper care, appointments repeatedly fell through.
In April 2009, one appointment was canceled because the doctor under contract with MDI didnt show up at the prison clinic, because he mistakenly thought Good Friday was a federal holiday, according to documents from Bakers medical files.
Baker missed another appointment because his medical file was misplaced and prison guards refused to transport him. In June, yet another appointment was canceled after the prison went under lockdown because it was too foggy, according to medical records filed with the suit.
In July, Baker saw a doctor who ordered a biopsy, and in days the verdict came back: squamous cell carcinoma. He was evaluated to see whether a less radical type of surgery could be used, but on Sept. 24, a Duke doctor performed the amputation.
Given the dire nature of Bakers problem, Hurst said, at some point in the spring, prison officials should have simply gotten him to a doctor who could test him. The cancer would have been diagnosed months earlier, he said.
At some point, you just need to say, Hey, you and you, get shotguns, weve got to get this guy to the doctor, Hurst said. Not that Greg needed guards with shotguns, but we understand proper security requirements.
Life after amputation
Baker, who was released in 2010, owned a small commercial concrete contracting company. Now he cant work, Hurst said, because complications from the surgery, which including removing lymph glands in his legs, keeps him from spending more than short periods of time walking, standing or even sitting, and he is on several medications for pain.
As you can imagine, there are also of course several psychological effects, Hurst said.
Reconstructive surgery has allowed him to be able to urinate properly, Hurst said, but in at least one way, thats a mixed blessing.
He has told me that every time he sits down to pee, hes reminded of what they did to him, Hurst said. I guess more accurately, what they didnt do.
Lawsuits by prisoners against the prison system are notoriously common, and many are found to be without merit. The contract between the federal government and MDI is just one of the barriers to Bakers. The judge in the case has tossed out the notion of suing some of the individual prison system employees in the case.
And the federal attorney defending the government contends in court filings that the case should be thrown out because Baker hasnt met a basic requirement for malpractice suits under North Carolina law: that a plaintiff must file notice that their medical care has been reviewed by an expert who is willing to testify that the care wasnt proper.
Still, Hurst said, the contract with MDI shouldnt shield the government from its congressionally mandated responsibility to properly take care of the prisoners it locks away.
The horrifying outcome for Baker, he said, emphasized the importance of meeting that responsibility.
Ive had bad dreams myself about this case, he said.