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Prison Hepatitis Arguments Set As Lawmakers Brace For Costs

The state may have to pay millions of dollars more in treatment costs for inmates infected with hepatitis C.
Florida Department of Corrections
The Florida Channel
A federal appeals court is scheduled to hear arguments in June in a dispute about whether Florida's prison system is providing proper care to inmates with hepatitis C.

A federal appeals court is scheduled to hear arguments in June in a dispute about whether Florida’s prison system is providing proper care to inmates with hepatitis C, as lawmakers prepare for the possibility of facing hefty treatment costs.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a notice Friday saying it will hear arguments in the case during the week of June 8 in Miami. The Florida Department of Corrections appealed last year after a federal district judge ruled that the state is required to provide expensive treatment to inmates who have been diagnosed with early stages of hepatitis C.

Meanwhile, the state House and Senate are expected to approve a proposed state budget Thursday that would set aside $28 million in reserves to pay for treating the inmates if needed.

“Release of the funds shall be contingent upon an adverse outcome against the state, after the conclusion of all appeals, in the  class action lawsuit which required the treatment of inmates  testing  positive  for  level  F0-F1 (early stage) Hepatitis C as of December 2017, and the submission of a treatment plan for such inmates by the department specifying the funds required to provide treatment which can be initiated or completed prior the end of Fiscal Year 2020-2021,” budget fine print, known as proviso language, says.

The fine print also says the department could request the release of the money “if needed to respond to a pandemic in the prison system.”

The federal court case centers on the use of an expensive type of medication known as “direct acting anti-virals” to treat hepatitis C, a contagious liver disease that can be fatal. U.S. District Judge Mark Walker ruled last year that the medication should be provided to all inmates with hepatitis C,

The state does not dispute that direct acting anti-virals should be provided to inmates with later stages of hepatitis C. But Attorney General Ashley Moody’s office, representing the Department of Corrections, contended in an August brief that the state would not violate prisoners’ constitutional rights if it did not provide the medication to prisoners in the early stages.

“The new treatment, direct acting anti-virals, can be lifesaving for those suffering from moderate-to-severe hepatitis C,” the August brief said. “By contrast, medical studies have not established that DAAs (direct acting anti-virals) materially improve the mortality rate or quality of life for those diagnosed with early stage hepatitis C. Instead, adequate care for those individuals involves monitoring the disease’s progression and administering DAAs if it becomes medically necessary.”

But attorneys for inmates responded in an October brief by saying the department has resisted providing the treatment for financial reasons, violating the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

“The Eighth Amendment requires prison officials to provide medical treatment that avoids serious consequences, not simply treat them after a prisoner becomes dangerously ill,” the brief said.

The October brief said experts have estimated that at least 20,000 inmates in state prisons have hepatitis C, a rate that is far higher than in the broader population.

Jim Saunders is the Executive Editor of The News Service Of Florida.