A lawsuit alleging the Missouri Department of Corrections systematically denies medical treatment to prisoners with chronic hepatitis C has taken a big leap forward after a judge certified it as a class action.
U.S. District Judge Nanette Laughrey last week ruled that the lawsuit, which was filed in December, meets all the requirements for class certification, including numerous plaintiffs and common issues of law and fact.
The ruling is significant because the class potentially includes thousands of inmates. At least 10 to 15 percent of the Missouri prison population is infected with hepatitis C, and the corrections department itself, in response to a Sunshine Act request, estimated last year that it had 5,200 inmates with hep C. The hepatitis C rate among the general population is about 1 percent.
"By not treating them, they're increasing the spread of the disease within this population," says Gillian Wilcox, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Missouri, which represents the plaintiffs. "Ninety-six percent of these people are coming back into communities."
David Owen, a spokesman for MDOC, declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.
Hepatitis C is a potentially deadly but curable viral infection that attacks the liver. It can lead to symptoms ranging from mild illness to cirrhosis, which can cause death.
In the past, there was no effective treatment for chronic hepatitis C (HCV) infections. In recent years, however, the Food and Drug Administration has approved several so-called direct-acting antiviral drugs that have proven 90 percent effective in curing the disease.
MDOC reported that as of January 15, it was treating .11 percent of its HCV-positive inmates, or a total of five inmates out of 4,736 inmates with known HCV infections at the time.
The lawsuit was filed by three inmates in the Missouri Department of Corrections (MDOC), Michael Postawko, Christopher Baker and Michael Jamerson, who have been diagnosed with HCV. None of them have been treated with direct-acting antiviral drugs, they allege. Baker says he has received no treatment whatsoever since 2010 and Baker says he’s not even on a list for treatment.
Besides MDOC, the lawsuit names numerous defendants, including prison officials, doctors and nurses and Corizon, a privately held prison contractor that provides medical care in MDOC's prisons.
Similar lawsuits have been filed in at least seven other states, Colorado being the latest.
Dan Margolies is KCUR’s health editor. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies.
Alex Smith is a health reporter for KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @AlexSmithKCUR