ACLU, DOC Settle Lawsuit For $41 Million

Thousands of Colorado prisoners will now receive treatment for hepatitis C

The American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado and the Colorado Department of Corrections settled a class action lawsuit last week in which the DOC agreed to spend $41 million on treating 2,200 prisoners suffering from chronic hepatitis C. 

As part of the settlement, the DOC also agreed to adjust its internal procedures pertaining to the treatment of inmates with hepatitis C. The changes include not refusing treatment to inmates because they’ve incurred disciplinary violations and not requiring inmates to undergo alcohol and drug treatment to be eligible for medical assistance for hepatitis C.

“The funding and policy changes agreed to in this settlement will go a long way towards finally solving an immense public health crisis in Colorado’s prisons,” said ACLU of Colorado Legal Director Mark Silverstein. “The settlement brings our prison system in line with the community standard of medical care and the state’s obligations under the Constitution. Thousands of prisoners who were forced to suffer through needless barriers to treatment now have access to life-saving medication.” 

The ACLU filed the lawsuit along with cooperating attorneys at Fox Rothschild. According to a July 2017 filing in the case, “CDOC intentionally and systematically delays and denies necessary medical care to prisoners suffering from chronic infection with the Hepatitis C virus (“HCV”), thereby placing them at substantial and unnecessary risk of severe illness and death.” 

The filing went on, “Since 2014, when the Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) approved breakthrough Direct Acting Anti-Viral (“DAA”) medications, a full cure for HCV has been available, with no significant adverse side effects. The community standard of care, as endorsed by major medical associations, now requires treating all chronic HCV patients with DAAs. Yet CDOC denies these life-saving cures, without medical justification, to cover 97 percent of the thousands of CDOC prisoners who need them, including Plaintiffs here.” 

The lawsuit named four plaintiffs — Ruben Aragon, John Springs, Robert Wieghard and David Poole — all who had chronic HCV infections, and who, the lawsuit alleged, DOC refused to treat. HCV is a virus that infects the liver, which can lead to liver damage, liver failure or liver cancer. The disease effects about 3.2 million people in the country. According the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 20,000 people died in 2016 from chronic HCV. 

According to the ACLU’s lawsuit, though, HCA is significantly more prevalent in prison populations than in the general population. The suit estimated that between 12 and 35 percent of inmates nationwide are infected with the virus. The suit alleged, “CDOC deliberately and intentionally delays and denies treatment to the overwhelming majority of prisoners who are living with chronic HCV.” 

In settling the case, the DOC agreed to spend $20.5 million in the fiscal year that started this past July to treat inmates, as well as another $20.5 million the following year. The DOC also indicated it would provide quarterly reports through July 2020 about the progress of the treatment of the relevant inmates and pay $175,000 in attorney fees. 

“This is a just and humane result that will save dollars in the long run,” Silverstein said. “Early detection and treatment can help stop the spread of the disease and eliminate higher medical costs down the line that come from forcing individuals to go untreated as the disease progresses. We know that this settlement will save lives here in Colorado, and we hope that it will be a model for other states as well.” 

The ACLU said its attorneys along with those from Fox Rothschild spent 1,200 hours spanning almost three years on the case trying to reach the settlement, and that it was the first in the country to lead to a state treating all of its inmates suffering from HCV. 

“It’s gratifying to achieve such a good result, not just for prisoners in Colorado who have been suffering with this disease for so long, but also to achieve a model for states across the country that face the exact same challenges that we see in Colorado,” said Christopher Beall, partner at Fox Rothschild. “Prison populations across the country have significantly higher than average rates of hepatitis C infection, and being able to cure the infection in these populations will go a very long way toward reducing the public health risks for hepatitis C transmission across the country. Colorado’s bold step in agreeing to fund treatment for all prisoners is not only humane, and the right thing to do, it is also definitely a good thing from a public health perspective for the state as a whole.”

Specifically, the lawsuit had sought relief for these inmates pursuant to the 8th Amendment of the Constitution, which bans cruel and unusual punishment. 

Tiffany Kaneta, daughter of a prisoner who will now receive treatment, worried her children might not get to meet their grandfather if he died from his infection while incarcerated. “For years I’ve watched as he has suffered from the devastating impacts of hepatitis C, not knowing if he’d ever get access to a cure,” Kaneta said. “I’ve worried that, if he didn’t get treatment, my kids would never get to know their grandfather. Now that I know that he will have access to life-saving treatment, I am smiling from ear to ear. With the ACLU advocating for him and others who are sick, this never would have happened. I have new hope now that my dad will get cured, get out, and finally get to play with his grandkids.”

— Chris Outcalt

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