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Settlement over Cook County's 2007 decision to cut inmates' dental care will cost nearly $5.3 million

Wednesday, September 12, 2018
Chicago Tribune
by Gregory Pratt

Settlement over Cook County's 2007 decision to cut inmates' dental care will cost nearly $5.3 million

Cook County commissioners voted to pay nearly $5.3 million to settle a 2009 federal lawsuit alleging that the county violated inmates’ rights when it sharply cut back on dental health care at the jail.

Attorney Kenneth Flaxman said the problems identified in his lawsuit started when the county, in the midst of a financial crisis in 2007, decided to solve its problems by cutting back on inmate health care. A medical official at the jail decided the county didn’t need to provide dental service and got rid of most of the dentists, meaning some had to wait nine months to see a dentist if they had toothaches.

“That was just a really horrible decision, horrible belief, that the doctors were making legal judgments and they weren’t being checked to tell them that isn’t what the Constitution requires,” Flaxman said.

Commissioners voted to pay out $5,263,000 to end the yearslong lawsuit. About 20,000 people have filed claims and are eligible to receive up to $3,000, Flaxman said, though the vast majority will get far less.

The Cook County Health and Hospitals System provides health care at the jail. Caryn Stancik, the hospitals’ spokeswoman, said the current leadership team has “made the provision of physical health, dental and mental health services an absolute priority over the past several years.”

“Our efforts were recognized this past June when the federal court dissolved the 2010 consent decree between the U.S. Department of Justice and Cermak Correctional Health Services,” Stancik said, referring to the jail, which had been under federal supervision.

READ MORE: Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle noncommittal whether she'll run for Chicago mayor »

The sheriff’s office does not control the provision of mental health, medical, or dental services to detainees in the jail, a spokeswoman for Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart said.

Commissioner Larry Suffredin, an Evanston Democrat, said the government’s theory was that “dental” wasn’t part of health care back then.

“I think we now understand that dental is essential to health care and mental health wasn’t really part of our health care,” Suffredin said. “I think now we’re doing it.”

In other news:

* The board passed a bill introduced by Suffredin that would prevent the county from detaining anyone at the juvenile detention center who is under 13.

Suffredin’s measure won’t affect many kids, as in 2017 and 2018 the county did not hold any 10- or 11-year olds in custody and in 2017 only took in nine 12-year olds. But, Suffredin said, it could lead to long-term thinking.

“We need more people to think about younger kids who are kind of lost in the system,” Suffredin said.

*Republican commissioners Timothy Schneider, Sean Morrison, and Gregg Goslinjoined with Democrat Richard Boykin to introduce an ordinance requiring a two-thirds supermajority vote for any new tax or tax increase. That was sent to a committee and is unlikely to pass. Schneider, Morrison and Goslin are facing tough re-election fights in November against Democrat challengers.

Twitter @royalpratt

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