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ACLU: Missouri Inmates Are Dying While Awaiting Hepatitis C Treatments

The cost of treatment has plummeted from about $90,000 for an individual course of treatment to about $20,000.

Missouri prison authorities have offered an effective cure for chronic hepatitis C to only 15 of the 4,590 inmates who have been diagnosed with the viral infection. 

That’s according to the ACLU of Missouri, which sought an emergency court order Monday to force the Missouri Department of Corrections and its medical provider, Corizon LLC, to begin testing and treating inmates with the condition.

“We’re asking the court to, first of all, order the state to begin appropriate testing to know who does and does not have hepatitis C and to begin a more robust treatment of persons with hepatitis C,” said Tony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU of Missouri.

He added, “People are dying while we wait.”

KCUR could not independently confirm that statement, and the Department of Corrections declined to comment on ongoing ligitation.

The ACLU’s motion is the latest development in a class-action lawsuit alleging the Missouri Department of Corrections and Corizon have systematically denied medical treatment for prisoners with hepatitis C.

A spokeswoman for Corizon said the company won't comment on ongoing litigation. 

About 10 to 15 percent of Missouri’s roughly 28,000 state prisoners are thought to be infected with hepatitis C, according to the Department of Corrections.  

The ACLU’s case was certified as a class-action lawsuit in July 2017, which means it could potentially include thousands of inmates. But until November, the litigation had been on pause because Missouri appealed the class-action ruling.

Hepatitis C, the most common blood-borne viral infection in the United States, can lead to symptoms ranging from mild illness to cirrhosis, which can cause death. About 2.4 million people in the United States are living with hepatitis C, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Roughly 97 percent of inmates nationwide with hepatitis C are not getting treatment, according to a survey conducted at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

And the health effects of hepatitis C aren’t necessarily limited to the inmates, since they can spread the infection upon their release from prison.

In the past, there was no effective treatment for chronic hepatitis C infections. But several antiviral drugs with a success rate of more than 95 percent have received FDA approval.

The first medications were expensive, costing up to $90,000 or more for an individual course of treatment. But the advent of generic drugs, as well as negotiations between states and drug officials, have brought prices down to about $20,000 for an eight- to 12-week course.

California last year allocated nearly $106 million to treat its 22,000 inmates with hepatitis C. Other court rulings and settlements have ordered states to provide treatment to inmates.

Last year, Kansas agreed to pay for the cost of treating Medicaid patients with hepatitis C. But hundreds of infected Kansas inmates are not covered by the settlement and are awaiting treatment

A 1976 Supreme Court decision  held that “deliberate indifference” by prison authorities to an inmate’s serious illness or injury violates the Eighth Amendment’s cruel and unusual punishment clause.

Editor's note: This story was updated to indicate that Corizon declined to comment.

Clarification: An earlier version of this story said Missouri had 52,000 inmates, a number that includes inmates housed not just in state prisons but in federal prisons and local jails. The actual number of state prisoners overseen by the Missouri Department of Corrections is 28,000. 

Dan Margolies is a senior reporter and editor at KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies.

Dan Margolies has been a reporter for the Kansas City Business Journal, The Kansas City Star, and KCUR Public Radio. He retired as a reporter in December 2022 after a 37-year journalism career.
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