California inmate receives heart transplant,fires debate

By on February 7, 2002

An inmate in a Sacramento prison received a heart transplant earlier this month that will cost taxpayers $1 million.
The inmate was dying of a viral heart condition. A debate has spawned since the surgery over whether the inmate, who was serving 14 years in prison for robbery, should have received the heart transplant. Jim Wasserman of the Associated Press reported that this case may be the first of a prison inmate receiving a heart while 4,000 Americans are waiting for the organ as well.
Russ Heimerich, a spokesman for the California Department of Corrections, cited a 1976 U.S. Supreme Court Ruling that stated that withholding necessary medical attention from inmates amounts to “cruel and unusual punishment.”
According to prison system officials and spokesmen of an organ-sharing network, as the prison population grows older, the cost of providing such serious medical care to inmates will continue to increase. Numerous inmates nationwide have already received kidney transplants financed by taxpayers.
California state officials told the New York Times that the surgery for the ailing inmate alone cost $200,000. Medical costs added to that amount will be taking $1million out of the taxpayers’ money. The most recent annual medical bill for California’s 156,000 inmates totaled $663 million.
When the inmate was transferred to the Stanford University Medical Center as his condition worsened, doctors at the hospital said that he would likely die without the transplant. ” Doctors in a medical practice don’t have the right to make social decisions,” Dr. Lawrence Schneiderman, a medical professor at the University of California, San Diego, told the Los Angeles Times. “If it’s a limited resource, our choice should be who it will help the most.”
“Medically, we have no reason to deny him,” Schneiderman continued. “Socially, he violated society, but not so severely that he gives up his right to experience medical care.”
The United Network for Organ sharing has its own ethics policy that, according to the Associated Press, “puts prison inmates on equal footing with others.” According to Heimerich, in California those prisoners may even include death row inmates.
Some do not believe that the inmate should have been the first to receive the heart. “You have to wonder if a law-abiding, taxpaying citizen drew one last breath while Jailhouse Joe was getting a second wind,” wrote Steve Lopez, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.
It is possible that any change in the way inmates are treated when waiting for an organ transplant must be made by government authorities. Arthur Caplan, a University of Pennsylvania medical ethicist, told the Associated Press that it is the decision of the state lawmakers to change the law if society is demanding it of them.


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