A judge has ordered the Florida Department of Corrections to begin treating all inmates with hepatitis C ― something the state had reportedly not been doing due to the cost of the drug used to treat the disease.
U.S. District Court Judge Mark Walker in an order Thursday evening denounced Florida’s “long and sordid history of neglecting” inmates with hepatitis C, a viral infection that, if left untreated, can cause liver damage, liver cancer, bleeding and even death.
Walker wrote that the truth uncovered in previous hearings was “crystal:” the Florida Department of Corrections “was shirking its duty to properly treat” inmates with the infection because the drugs used to do so, called “direct-acting antivirals,” were too expensive.
The Florida Department of Corrections in a statement to HuffPost on Friday said it was “committed to ensuring all inmates in our custody are provided medically necessary treatment that is in line with national standards and our constitutional responsibilities.”
“We are in receipt of the judge’s order and will thoroughly review,” the department said.
Thursday’s order is the result of a class-action lawsuit the Florida Justice Institute filed on behalf of three inmates in May 2017. Walker issued a preliminary injunction in November 2017 requiring the department meet certain deadlines in treating inmates with the disease, depending on the severity of their case. The injunction did not require treatment for patients at the early stages of the disease.
Two additional inmates filed lawsuits in December, arguing the state had violated their rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act and section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act in failing to treat them for hepatitis C.
“We will have dozens of these filed by June,” Ryan Andrews, the attorney on the one of the lawsuits, told the Tallahassee Democrat. “These people need help and are dying from diseases that are in fact curable now.”
Hepatitis C typically spreads from contact with blood or blood products infected with the virus. That commonly occurs through intravenous drug use, but the disease can also transmit through tattooing, blood transfusions and organ transplants.
The issue of prisons not treating inmates with hepatitis C extends beyond Florida. According to a report last year from Kaiser Health News, prisons across the United States were failing to treat at least 144,000 inmates with the disease.
Most states cited high drug prices as the cause of their neglect. A single course of treatment for hepatitis C can cost $90,000.
Advocates estimate there could be as many as 20,000 inmates in Florida who currently have the disease. State Sen. Jeff Brandes, who chairs the Florida Senate’s criminal justice budgeting committee, told the Miami Herald that Thursday’s order could impact the state’s budget by nearly $20 million.
Walker’s order also requires the Florida Department of Corrections to begin filing monthly status reports to the court in June that details the number of inmates screened for hepatitis C, how many have the disease and how far it has progressed, and how many patients are receiving treatment.
Carl Hoffer, one of the inmates represented in the Florida Justice Institute’s lawsuit, died waiting for a liver transplant as the case was pending, according to attorney Erica Selig.
“This order will prevent further suffering and deaths, like Mr. Hoffer’s, in Florida’s prison system,” Selig said in a release.