Thousands of inmates in Missouri suffering from hepatitis C could be one step closer to being cured if a federal appeals court panel affirms a lower court decision to certify a class action against the state's corrections department.
The U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis is considering the arguments made by two groups that brought the suit on the inmates' behalf and the response of the state.
The MacArthur Justice Center of St. Louis, which along with the Missouri chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, filed the lawsuit against the state's Department of Corrections and health care provider, Corizon.
They claim the denial of treatment to all but the sickest inmates was "cruel and unusual punishment," and therefore in violation of the 8th Amendment.
U.S. District Judge Nanette Laughrey From Court's website
The groups sued on behalf of three inmates, but asked a federal judge to certify a class action that could lead to all the estimated 5,000 inmates suffering from the liver infection - 18 percent of the prison population, according to court filings - receiving treatment.
New drugs developed in recent years makes hepatitis C curable, within 12 weeks. But the price tag for the best known treatments is between $55,000 and $95,000, though the Food and Drug Administration last year approved the use of a significantly lower priced medication, $26,500 for an eight week course of treatment.
U.S. District Judge Nanette Laughrey approved the class action certification, a decision that the state appealed. Oral arguments were heard before the appeals court last month, and the panel could deliver its opinion before the end of the year, according to the MacArthur Justice Center.
Missouri Deputy Attorney General Ryan Bangert argued that because the medical needs of the inmates were so different they should not be included in the same lawsuit, according to a report by St. Louis Public Radio.
Bangert noted that the some sufferers have little or no symptoms, while others have significant medical problems, including liver failure. The state claims that the class is too broad, public radio reported.
Amy Breihan, the MacArthur center's director, told the St. Louis Record that cost is not the central issue being considered by the courts, that while a "consideration," the key claim of the suit is that the inmates' constitutional rights are violated by the failure to treat them.
Breihan said that similar lawsuits have been filed in several states, with some still to be resolved and others settled, including in Colorado, where the Department of Corrections has agreed to spend more than $40 million on treatment for nearly 3,000 inmates. Other states are involved in bulk buying of medication, Breihan said.
"This is a public health issue because 95 percent (of the inmates) will at some point return to their communities," Breihan argued. "If you can effectively treat within the Department of Corrections that can stop the further spread of the virus."
To not treat inmates is "short sighted and cruel," Breihan added