GREENSBORO, N.C. – Three people incarcerated in North Carolina prisons who suffer from Hepatitis C filed a federal class-action lawsuit against state officials today, arguing that North Carolina’s Department of Public Safety (DPS) refuses to provide medically necessary, life-saving treatment for this highly communicable disease for no justifiable reason.
Hepatitis C is the most deadly infectious disease in the U.S., killing more Americans than the next 60 infectious diseases combined. North Carolina does not provide universal testing for Hepatitis C for all people incarcerated, even though the American Association for the Study of Liver Disease and the Infectious Diseases Society of America recommend doing so. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that as many as one third of all people incarcerated in the U.S. suffer from the contagious disease. If left untreated, Hepatitis C can lead to liver cancer, portal hypertension, painful symptoms, and death.
“North Carolina’s cruel and arbitrary refusal to treat or even test incarcerated people for this deadly but curable disease has created a public health crisis that puts everyone at risk,” said Emily Seawell, Staff Attorney for the ACLU of North Carolina. “The vast majority of people incarcerated will one day return to their communities. Not testing or treating everyone incarcerated for Hepatitis C guarantees that countless people will return to communities suffering from a highly communicable disease, leading to increased suffering and death that will ultimately cost more for taxpayers.”
The three men’s class-action lawsuit, filed on behalf of all people incarcerated in North Carolina with Hepatitis C, argues that the state’s denial of medical service violates the Americans with Disabilities Act and the U.S. Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
Medications approved by the FDA in recent years have been shown to cure Hepatitis C in more than 90 percent of cases. The clinical standard of care, endorsed by a consensus of medical experts and associations in the U.S., including the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases and the Infectious Diseases Society of America, calls for administering these breakthrough medications to all persons with chronic Hepatitis C from the time they are diagnosed. With very narrow exceptions, North Carolina DPS policy expressly forbids the treatment of prisoners whose Hepatitis C is caught early, when treatment would be most effective. Medical staff may order testing to screen for the disease, but that decision is arbitrary.
“This wholly avoidable public health crisis is yet another harmful and dangerous result of policy decisions that wrongly place too many people in prison and then refuse to adequately fund those overcrowded prisons,” said Chris Brook, Legal Director for the ACLU of North Carolina. “These inhumane conditions, fueled by mass incarceration, can no longer be ignored and must be properly addressed by officials across North Carolina without delay.”
The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina, asks the court to order state officials to formulate and implement a treatment and testing policy that meets current standards of medical care and to provide treatment to all incarcerated people identified as suffering from Hepatitis C. Today’s lawsuit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina and North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services.