Death sentence?

Virginia inmate files federal class action lawsuit to make Hepatitis C treatment available to prisoners

Jeremy Lazarus | 7/14/2017, 6:33 a.m.
Terry A. Riggleman went to prison as a convicted robber. But 11 years into his 20-year sentence, he is working ...
King Salim Khalfani, Richmond managing director for Americans Resisting Minority and Ethnic Discrimination, commends the lawsuit seeking to overturn a state policy of withholding Hepatitis C medicine from inmates. Looking on, from left, are: Michael Donovan, Nexus Services president and CEO, whose company is funding the lawsuit; the Rev. Frank Jackson, managing director of ARMED’s Chicago office; and Mario Williams, lead attorney with Nexus Caridades Attorneys that is representing inmates in the suit.

Michael Donovan, president and CEO of the GPS equipment maker Nexus Services Inc. that funds Nexus Caridades, said his company “is proud to fund this class action suit so we can bring an end to the DOC course of conduct which literally condemns inmates like Mr. Riggleman to die.”

Mr. Williams, the attorney, said Nexus Caridades is hopeful the state will not fight the suit and, instead, will agree to a settlement, although he said that DOC officials have been unwilling to entertain an agreement to change the policy.

According to the suit, the federal Bureau of Prisons started prescribing the new Hepatitis C medication, as have correctional systems in California, New York, Illinois and three other states.

That stands in contrast to Virginia prisons, which have refused to use the new class of direct-acting antiviral drugs and have ceased providing older medications, including a combination therapy of interferon ribavirin or a triple therapy that adds another drug.

Mr. Williams said Virginia inmates are at the mercy of the policies because they automatically are ineligible for Medicaid while in prison. They are only eligible for Medicaid coverage when they are transferred to a hospital for treatment. Inmates also are banned by DOC policy from being added to a relative’s health insurance policy or buying their own.

Instead, they are required to receive treatment from medical staff at the prison where they are housed.

“They are absolute wards of the state when it comes to health care,” Mr. Williams said.

DOC’s detailed medical guidelines allow for treatment of Hepatitis C when the disease is advanced, but the decision is made on a case-by-case basis.

“The treatment will be based on the severity of the disease,” the guidelines state, as well as the willingness of the patient to abstain from risky behavior that can create a risk of re-infection and has enough time left on a sentence to complete treatment.

According to Nexus Caridades, the policy was created because DOC does not want to the absorb the cost.

State corrections officials declined to release to the Free Press any information about the number of inmates who are infected or are in treatment for Hepatitis C.

Mr. Donovan said the department also has not responded to Nexus Caridades’ requests for the information..

Hepatitis C is generally spread like HIV/AIDS — through fluid transfer between an infected party and another person. For example, shared needles used to create prison tattoos can result in the transfer. So can sexual activity.

While Hepatitis C can go undetected for years, the disease can result in liver cancer or cirrhosis, or scarring of the liver, and render the organ that filters poison from the blood inoperative.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Hepatitis C causes the deaths of nearly 20,000 Americans yearly, surpassing deaths from other infectious diseases, including HIV/AIDS, and is the most common cause for liver transplants.

“Each day without treatment increases the likelihood of permanent damage or death,” Mr. Donovan said.

Because the disease is epidemic in Virginia’s prisons, the lack of treatment means hundreds of people will die each year from a disease that is absolutely curable, he said.

“The issue for DOC and the state is cost. But that is not our concern,” Mr. Donovan said. “Our concern is saving lives and preventing unelected officials from deciding who will live and who will die based on policies regarding the treatment of disease for people who are in their care and absolutely dependent on them.”