Inmate's illness costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars

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by David Alan

WVEC.com

Posted on July 1, 2011 at 2:13 PM

Updated Thursday, Oct 17 at 2:17 PM

PORTSMOUTH -- With 40 tubes coming out of his chest that are hooked up to a sophisticated machine that works for his heart, Jason Smallwood looks more like a severely-ill hospital patient than a prison inmate.

Smallwood, a non-violent offender, is serving 11 years for trying to sell cocaine and heroin.

"Jason's prognosis, we understand, is grave," his mother, Janice Vaughn, said.

Before he was fully processed into the system, he developed the same heart issues that killed his father and uncle, she explained.

His doctor e-mailed state officials saying Jason's life expectancy was limited if he didn’t receive a heart transplant in the near future.

The family met with the transplant committee at Medical College of Virginia in Richmond with every hope Jason would get a new heart.

He met with doctors, was given a psychological exam and was counseled by a chaplain, but for a reason that's still not clear, talk of a transplant went nowhere.

What's frustrating to the family is that so many of their emails, letters and phone calls to the state and the Department of Corrections asking about Jason's care go unanswered.

Jason’s situation is unique. He’s the only inmate in the prison system with a left ventricle assist device, or LVAD.

His mother claims Jason was given the device not to keep him alive until a new heart could be found but to buy him enough time to say good-bye.

Vaughn says keeping her son locked up with seemingly no hope of a transplant, his heart pumping with the help of a device sure to fail suddenly, is a death sentence.

“Cruel and unusual punishment, quite cruel," Vaughn added.

Currently, he’s being held in the infirmary of the Powhatan Correctional Center near Richmond.

The Department of Corrections declined to talk on camera about Smallwood’s care, including whether it's ever been determined if he’s a candidate for a transplant.

They did say, in an e-mail, “We do not let DOC operational decisions trump medical decisions."

Vaughn says her son's failing health is not just her burden to bear. She says Jason's medical bills also are an unnecessary burden on taxpayers.

"Terminal illness - you're talking catastrophic costs," Vaughn said.

Smallwood has received two LVADs at taxpayer expense. The second device is now failing. Estimates are a single LVAD costs $250,000, which is more than the cost of a heart transplant.

Smallwood isn't due to be released until 2017, which raises the question of how many more heart pumps he will need.

Vaughn says family is medically trained to care for Jason and could provide some break to taxpayers.

"Let us care for him ourselves because we understand that is it grave," Vaughn said.

At the very least, Vaughn said, family could take Jason to doctor's visits, which costs taxpayers $1,500 a trip.

If there is no hope for a new heart, Vaughn asks that justice have mercy and let her son come home to die.

"In these last days, if that be the will of God, that I be able to hold his hand and hug him and comfort him and hold his hand and help him through," she said.

The state is required to provide medical care to inmates and has performed one transplant, a live transplant, in the past five years.

 

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