Settlement requires state prisons to test for Hepatitis C and treat every patient

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The ACLU of North Carolina has settled a lawsuit with the N.C. Department of Public Safety to improve the testing and treatment of Hepatitis C in state prisons. A federal judge approved the settlement Monday.

Hepatitis C is a liver infection caused by a virus. It is transmissible through blood contact or sharing items including syringes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It was the deadliest infectious disease in the United States prior to the COVID pandemic.

The ACLU filed the lawsuit on behalf of three incarcerated people in 2018. Back then, the Department of Safety only treated patients whose symptoms have progressed to severe liver scarring and fibrosis, the initial complaint stated.

“If you weren’t sick enough, you weren’t gonna qualify, even if nobody was in line ahead of you,” Em Harwell, staff attorney at the ACLU of North Carolina told Policy Watch.

Harwell said one of the plaintiffs, Robert Parham had had Hepatitis C for 20 years without receiving treatment from the state while he remained in custody at Polk Correctional Institution in Butner.

Federal District Judge William Osteen Jr. in the Middle District of North Carolina certified the case as a class action in 2019 on behalf of people in state prisons who have or will have hepatitis C without treatment. The DPS amended its policy after the judge enjoined it.

Buffkin v. Hooks Consent DecreeThe settlement requires expanded testing and patient education, as well as enhanced treatment, according to a notice of the class action. Prisons will test residents for hep C upon admission and transfer, and at their routine physicals, according to the consent decree.

The DPS has agreed to treat a minimum of 2,100 patients in detention in the next five years after state prisons resume normal operations after the COVID-19 emergency, a statement said. John Bull, a DPS spokesperson said in an email that the department is not yet able to determine who will be tested first due to the pandemic.

The ACLU started suing states’ correctional departments after the Food and Drug Administration approved a new drug to treat Hepatitis C in 2014, but prisons failed to provide access to it like other health care providers — due to cost concerns. The ACLU filed and reached settlements with state governments including Pennsylvania, MissouriColorado and Virginia.

These settlements resulted in policy changes to better treat incarcerated Hepatitis C patients, including using the new antiviral drug. A similar case in Tennessee is in the appeal process after the plaintiffs lost and a Florida case in which the judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs also got appealed, Harwell said.

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Settlement requires state prisons to test for Hepatitis C and treat every patient