Lawsuit alleges S.C. state prisons fail to test, treat inmates for hepatits C

The lawsuit estimates a third of the prison systems’ approximately 19,000 inmates could have chronic hepatitis C

By John Monk
The State

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Two doctors employed by the S.C. Department of Corrections agree with inmates that the state’s prisons fail to deliver adequate medical care, including testing and treatment, to inmates with hepatitis C, a potentially fatal liver disease.

The doctors’ statements are included in sworn affidavits filed in a federal lawsuit brought by three inmates against the Corrections Department.

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)

“It is my opinion, within a reasonable degree of medical certainty, that SCDC’s policies and practices regarding hepatitis C testing deviate from the standard of care,” said James Grubbs, an infectious disease physician who has worked for the prisons system since 2016.

Grubbs’ opinion was echoed by another prison physician, Ansal Shah.

Both said treatment of S.C. inmates with hepatitis C does not meet medically approved standards of care.

If successful, the inmates’ lawsuit would force the state to spend tens of millions of dollars to treat inmates with hepatitis C. New drugs have a 95 percent success rate in curing the disease. But the cost to give one inmate the drug is more than $20,000. However, since the disease progresses in stages, not every infected inmate needs to get the full treatment.

The lawsuit estimates a third of the prison systems’ approximately 19,000 inmates — or 6,000 — could have chronic hepatitis C., which is spread by the use of unclean needles. If left untreated, chronic hepatitis C can lead to liver cancer, other diseases and death, the lawsuit says.

The inmates, who are seeking class-action status for their lawsuit, allege the Corrections Department’s failure to test and treat inmates for hepatitis C violates their constitutional rights to be imprisoned free of “cruel and unusual punishment.”

The two prison doctors, Grubbs and Shah, are defendants in the lawsuit, filed in March. However, since they have given affidavits that support the inmates’ claims, lawyers for the inmates are asking that the doctors be dropped as defendants.

Corrections Department spokesman Dexter Lee said Tuesday the state agency does not comment on pending litigation.

The prisons system now spends roughly $70 million a year out of its $400 million-plus budget on health care, including mental health and psychiatric care. However, only about $1 million of that $70 million goes for hepatitis C testing and treatment.

The lawsuit seeks to require the Corrections Department and its director, Bryan Stirling, to test all inmates for hepatitis C and treat those who can be treated. To test and treat more inmates with hepatitis C would require the Legislature to increase the Corrections Department’s budget. At the same time, however, other state agencies — from colleges to K-12 schools to Social Services — are underfunded and seeking added state dollars.

The federal Centers for Disease Control recommends testing all persons at risk for hepatitis C. However, the prison system “has a policy and practice of not testing inmates for hepatitis C except in limited circumstances,” the inmates’ lawsuit alleges. Their lawsuit also alleges corrections director Stirling, a defendant, “has exhibited deliberate indifference to the serious medical needs of ” inmates with hepatitis C.

The three inmates suing are:

Russell Geissler, 34, who has tested positive for hepatitis C. Geissler claims he repeatedly has been denied treatment. He is serving a 10-year sentence for a Greenville armed robbery.

Bernard Bagley, 61, who says he is showing painful hepatitis C symptoms, but prison officials refuse to test him for the disease. Bagley is serving a life sentence for murder in a Richland County case.

Willie James Jackson, 64, who was diagnosed with chronic hepatitis C in 2009, but has been denied treatment. Jackson was sentenced to life for crimes committed in Lancaster County, including burglary and rape.

U.S. Judge Margaret Seymour of South Carolina is overseeing the case.

A similar lawsuit also was filed against the Florida prisons system. In that case, a federal judge last fall ordered Florida to diagnose and treat the most infected inmates.

©2018 The State (Columbia, S.C.)

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