GREENSBORO, N.C. – A federal court has ordered the North Carolina Department of Public Safety to provide treatment for Hepatitis C, the most deadly infectious disease in the U.S., to three individual plaintiffs and to make treatment possible for all people who are incarcerated in state prisons and have been diagnosed with Hepatitis C.
U.S. District Judge William Osteen Jr. issued a ruling on Wednesday that blocks the state’s current policy, which denies medically necessary, lifesaving treatment to many incarcerated people who suffer from the deadly disease, finding that the policy is “likely deliberately indifferent” to their health. Civil rights groups filed a federal class-action lawsuit in June on behalf of three people who are incarcerated, arguing 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.
“This ruling is an important step toward combating a major public health crisis that leads to the suffering and death of thousands of people both inside and outside prison walls,” said Emily Seawell, staff attorney for the ACLU of North Carolina. “The vast majority of people who are incarcerated will one day reenter the community, and medical experts have made it clear that to combat the Hepatitis C epidemic, we must provide treatment as quickly as possible. We expect officials to comply with this order and begin providing broader treatment to people who have Hepatitis C without delay.”
Hepatitis C is the most deadly infectious disease in the U.S., killing more Americans than the next 60 infectious diseases combined. 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, other painful symptoms, and death.
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.
On November 30, 2018, Magistrate Judge Joe L. Webster issued a 33-page opinion to U.S. District Judge William Osteen Jr. recommending that the court grant a preliminary injunction blocking the state’s current policy, which denies medically necessary, lifesaving treatment to many incarcerated people who suffer from the deadly disease.