Inmates denied care
A suit accuses the state of withholding hep C treatment behind bars.
One in nine prisoners in Colorado has hepatitis C, the most deadly — though curable — infectious disease in the nation, yet only a fraction of them receives treatment.
Of the 2,280 prisoners diagnosed with the virus, the Colorado Department of Corrections treats fewer than 70 per year, leaving the rest to suffer as victims of a “cruel and arbitrary” system, American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado accused in a classaction lawsuit filed Wednesday against the department.
Before a prisoner is considered for treatment, a blood test must show “sustained measurable liver damage” serious enough to equate roughly to stage two liver disease, which is measured in stages zero through four. Then the prisoner must complete alcohol or drug therapy, which can take more than two years depending on program availability at the prison where the inmate is held.
The chances of receiving potentially life-saving antiviral medication even after those qualifications are met is minimal. A Department of Corrections committee that meets four times each year chooses a “select few” prisoners based on a yearly quota of up to 70 people, the lawsuit says. A recent count found 735 prisoners eligible for consideration by the committee.
“We have always been concerned with the delivery of medical care in the Department of Corrections and this is a giant health crisis in Colorado prisons and the nation’s prisons,” said Mark Silverstein, legal director for ACLU of Colorado. Also, when prisoners don’t receive treatment behind bars and are released, it raises the public health risk of spreading the disease, he said.
Corrections spokesman Mark Fairbairn said the system has treated 80 offenders with the new antiviral treatment since July 2015. In all but one case, the inmates were cured, he said. “Although these new pharmaceuticals are groundbreaking and effective, we have developed and implemented poli-
cy to assess treatment needs alongside appropriated resources,” he said in an email.
It was not known how much it would cost the state to provide treatment for all infected prisoners or how much it has cost to treat those 80 offenders.
The ACLU filed a similar lawsuit in 2016 against the state Medicaid department, accusing Colorado of denying treatment for needy Coloradans infected with the curable disease.
Until 2013, the best treatment for hepatitis C included toxic injections that went on for a year, had an estimated cure rate of only 50 percent and had side effects worse sometimes than the disease itself — bone pain, memory loss, depression and nausea. Sovaldi, approved four years ago, is something of a miracle drug, requiring three months of therapy without the excruciating side effects. Its cure rate is 90 percent.
But because of the drug’s price tag — estimated at $40,000 for the 12-week regimen — Medicaid placed stipulations on who qualifies for treatment. Those with the government insurance must have enough liver damage to qualify as stage two.
That lawsuit against the state Medicaid department is ongoing.
The lawsuit filed Wednesday is brought by four prisoners, including Robert Wieghard, a 61year-old Bent County Correctional Facility inmate. Wieghard has enough liver damage to qualify for treatment, but has been denied eligibility because he has not completed the required alcohol and drug classes.
The lawsuit says hepatitis C has contributed to 18 deaths of Colorado prisoners in the last three years. The virus is the most deadly infectious disease in the United States, leading to cirrhosis and liver failure if not treated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.