NC prison inmates with Hepatitis C ‘need proper medical care,’ attorney argues

For the sixth time in slightly more than a month, customers of a South Carolina restaurant might have been exposed to hepatitis A.
For the sixth time in slightly more than a month, customers of a South Carolina restaurant might have been exposed to hepatitis A. online@newsandobserver.com

A federal judge heard arguments Monday in a lawsuit filed by three North Carolina inmates who want the state prison system to make changes in how it handles the testing and treatment of Hepatitis C.

“These people need proper medical care, and they need it now,” said attorney Daniel Siegel with the North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services, which along with the ACLU of North Carolina is representing the inmates.

The lawsuit asks a federal court to order the N.C. Department of Public Safety to implement universal testing for Hepatitis C, a blood-borne virus that attacks the liver. It also calls for an end to a practice that makes many infected inmates ineligible to receive modern drugs to combat the illness.

The lawsuit, which includes additional demands including monetary damages and treatment for the inmates, was filed in June.

The five defendants include the N.C. Department of Public Safety and its secretary, Erik Hooks, along with the acting medical director of prisons for the Department of Adult Correction and Juvenile Justice.

In September the inmates asked a judge to order immediate changes to the state’s testing and treatment protocols for Hepatitis C infections, which can be contracted through needles, blood transfusions and other ways.

Judge Joe Webster in Durham heard arguments Monday but didn’t issue a judgment. Instead he set another hearing for next Monday to hear arguments on whether the case will be classified as a class-action lawsuit, allowing the plaintiffs to represent current and future prisoners who have or could be at risk for Hepatitis C.

Attorneys for the state argued Monday that medical guidelines don’t set a standard for testing and treatment.

Only 16 percent of prison facilities in the United States test all inmates for Hepatitis C, the attorneys said. Seventeen states reported offering routine testing in prison facilities, according to court documents.

The North Carolina prison system takes a risk-based approach to testing inmates, the documents said. Inmates with the virus, which can develop over decades, are monitored with testing.

Court documents and testimony indicate that an eight-week course of treatment can cost between $25,000 and $48,500 per patient, depending on the medication.

“The department prioritizes treatment based on a patient’s individual medical needs and history,” said Anita Wilson, Health Services medical director at the Department of Adult Correction and Juvenile Justice, in an affidavit for the state. “Because HCV is a slowly progressing disease, such prioritization does not pose an immediate medical risk (or even a foreseeable risk in the longer term) to inmates who are not a high priority for immediate treatment.”

Virginia Bridges: 919-829-8924, @virginiabridges