Hepatitis C drug may be costly for Pa. prisons

Nearly 5,400 inmates at the Pennsylvania DOC have been diagnosed with the disease


By Debra Erdley
Tribune-Review

PITTSBURGH — A pricey miracle drug that can cure hepatitis C has created new health care issues at the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, where about 5,400 inmates have been diagnosed with the disease.

Prison officials said they plan to treat about 250 of the most seriously ill inmates next year at an estimated cost of $14 million, or about $56,000 per inmate. That's more than one third of the total estimated drug cost of $39 million for some 47,400 inmates.

Harvoni is one of the new breakthrough drugs for Hepatitis C. (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun/TNS)
Harvoni is one of the new breakthrough drugs for Hepatitis C. (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun/TNS)

A federal appeals court already is weighing the department's actions involving providing treatment to Mumia Abu-Jamal, a Philadelphia man serving life for the murder of a police officer.

Bret Grote, director of the Abolitionist Law Center in Pittsburgh, is representing Abu-Jamal. He said his client is receiving treatment now. But it took nearly two years of court appeals after he collapsed in prison before the Department of Corrections began treatment in April.

The department appealed a district court ruling from January ordering it to treat Abu-Jamal.

Department of Corrections spokeswoman Amy Worden said treatment began after recent tests found his condition finally fit department criteria for treatment.

Grote said, by that time, Abu-Jamal's illness had progressed to cirrhosis of the liver.

“I don't know how many others are in similar shape. We have two other clients we're advocating for treatment who are in similar or worse condition. We have the ability to eradicate hepatitis C, but it cannot be done if priority is not given to those who are incarcerated,” Grote said.

The new class of hepatitis C drugs, first approved in 2013, initially came on the market at a cost of about $84,000 per person.

Worden said in September the department managed to negotiate prices down to $56,000 per person for a standard 12-week course of Harvoni.

“Length of treatment varies by patient, with the majority receiving a 12-week course of medication. Others may require only 8 weeks and others could require as many as 24 weeks of medication,” she wrote in an email.

In a budget presentation this year requesting $14 million for hepatitis C treatment, Corrections Secretary John Whetzel cautioned the costs could increase significantly in the future.

Experts estimate hepatitis C, a life-threatening liver disease that can remain dormant for decades, affects about 1 to 2 percent of the general U.S. population. But a 2014 survey suggests the number could be anywhere from 10 to 41 percent among the more than 2 million people in U.S. prisons, where many inmates have a history of drug use and other behaviors that increase the risk of infection.

Access to treatment issues in Pennsylvania prisons have already landed the state in federal court where the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia is weighing the Department of Corrections' appeal of a federal judges' January ruling ordering the prison system to begin treating Abu-Jamal with the drug regimen immediately.

Exactly how many inmates are infected with hepatitis C is unclear since inmates are permitted to opt out of testing for the disease when they are admitted to the prison system. Worden said the state does not maintain statistics on how many inmates refuse the tests.

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©2017 Tribune-Review (Greensburg, Pa.)

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