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TN Dept. of Corrections' Hep C Protocol Called "Cruel and Unusual"

A small fraction of Tennessee prison inmates are offered the life-saving anti-viral drugs recommended to treat hepatitis-C. (Stéphane Lavoie/Flickr)
A small fraction of Tennessee prison inmates are offered the life-saving anti-viral drugs recommended to treat hepatitis-C. (Stéphane Lavoie/Flickr)
July 27, 2016

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Of the 3,400 inmates with hepatitis-C in Tennessee's prisons, only eight are receiving the antiviral drugs that could save their life. That statistic, released by the state Department of Corrections earlier this year - is one of the reasons the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee has filed a federal class-action lawsuit challenging the agency's policy.

While the lawsuit, filed Monday, cites the rights of inmates to proper medical care, ACLU of Tennessee legal director Thomas Castelli said it's less costly to stay ahead of the illness.

"If there is preventive care or treatments that may effectively cure an issue," he said, "there's some cost benefit to the state so that they don't continue to have more complications that might even cause more of a drain on the limited resources the state may have."

Hepatitis-C is a liver disease caused by a virus. Antiviral medicines can cure about 90 percent of cases, and if left untreated, the virus can cause liver cancer and cirrhosis. In a statement, the Tennessee Department of Corrections said the department "is currently unaware of the referenced court filing, but is confident the department is providing adequate medical care as determined by medical protocol."

The state is following its current protocol for hep-C treatment, but current guidance for treatment - from the American Association for the Study of Liver Disease and Infectious Disease Society of America - has advised a 12-week treatment regimen of antiviral drugs as the medically accepted standard of care. Because hep-C is a communicable disease, Castelli said, it's in the public's best interest that it's properly treated.

"Most inmates are going to be returned to society," he said. "If we're releasing inmates with any kind of disease that is infectious, that could be a public health issue that should be addressed."

Specifically, the lawsuit asks the court to declare the DOC's policies a violation of the Eighth Amendment and require the department to develop and implement a new plan for diagnosis and treatment.

A copy of the complaint is online at aclu-tn.org.

Stephanie Carson/Dallas Heltzell, Public News Service - TN