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Prison Inmates Want Treatment For Hepatitis C While Waiting For Lawsuit To Be Heard

Thomas Hawk | Flickr

The ACLU and the MacArthur Justice Center of Missouri are asking a judge to order the expedited treatment of prison inmates infected with the hepatitis C virus. 

They’ve filed a class-action lawsuit against the Missouri Department of Corrections and its private medical provider, Corizon, but that may not get started for another year. 

“What we’re asking for is, in a sense, to provide emergency relief to provide treatment to some of the class members while the litigation proceeds, because there is a threat of irreparable harm to these folks if you don’t provide treatment now,” said Amy Breihan with MacArthur.

The lawsuit claims that MDOC and Corizon are not treating several thousand inmates infected with hepatitis C, which is leading to chronic and severe problems and even death. 

“Their (MDOC’s) explanation thus far is that they’re prioritizing people for treatment,” Breihan said. “They’re treating the sickest first. But they’re treating it at such an incredibly slow rate that there are people dying.” 

Hepatitis C is the most common bloodborne illness in the U.S. and can lead to a variety of symptoms including fatigue and mild illness to cirrhosis and liver cancer. With antiviral drugs, hepatitis C can be treated effectively more than 90% of the time. 

There’s been two days of testimony in federal court in Jefferson City, but Breihan said the most compelling in her opinion came from two Corizon doctors.

“They both testified under oath that if they could, they would treat everybody in Missouri prisons who has chronic hepatitis C with these direct acting antiviral drugs,” she said.

The Missouri Department of Corrections said it does not comment on ongoing litigation. 

The hearing is set to wrap up on Friday, and the judge is expected to make a decision shortly after.

 Correction: The hearing is being held in federal court in Jefferson City. An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the court.

Jaclyn is the Jefferson City statehouse reporter for St. Louis Public Radio.