There are growing controversies about the treatment of hepatitis C in prison populations.
Salvatore Chimenti already had advanced liver damage from the hepatitis C virus when he filed a lawsuit against the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections in the summer of 2015. He wanted access to new and expensive drugs that cure the virus in 90 percent or more of people who take them. Because he is an inmate, when the DOC denied him the medication, the only way Chimenti could potentially get it was to sue. “When you’re in prison, you have no other option, this is your only medical provider. You cannot get a second opinion; you can’t pay for it yourself. You are completely under the control of the Department of Corrections and their medical provider,” said Su Ming Yeh, an attorney with the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project who is representing Chimenti in a class-action lawsuit.
Chimenti’s health has deteriorated since last year, Yeh said. “Since we even filed the lawsuit, he has progressively gotten worse in terms of his symptoms, and a mass in his liver has appeared.” Depriving prisoners of treatment is considered cruel and unusual punishment, a violation of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, which is why inmates are the only people in the country with a constitutional right to health care. She believes the DOC’s denial of medicines to Chimenti and hundreds of other Pennsylvania inmates with hepatitis C is unconstitutional, and though a Pennsylvania judge denied treatment to a prisoner in a different case earlier this year, he came to the same conclusion as Yeh.
As these new and expensive drugs become the norm for treatment, it’s relatively certain that state prison systems will be on the hook to provide them to at least some inmates. But how many, and how much it will cost, appears to vary dramatically, according to data from a study released last week. And even at discounted prices, most states will spend millions of dollars a year just treating the worst cases of hepatitis C among inmates.
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