Appeals court upholds rationing of hepatitis C treatment for Kentucky inmates. Dissenting judge says ruling condemns prisoners to long-term damage..

Published 7:06 am Sunday, July 11, 2021

The Kentucky Department of Corrections can deny a life-saving but expensive hepatitis C medication to inmates, a federal appeals court ruled in a split decision. The dissenting judge in last week’s 2-1 ruling at the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the majority’s opinion will condemn hundreds of prisoners to long-term organ damage and suffering, The Courier-Journal reported.

Hepatitis C is the leading cause of liver transplantation and serious liver disease, including cirrhosis and liver cancer, and Kentucky has the highest infection rate in the United States. Newer treatments can cure nearly 100% of patients but cost $13,000 to $32,000. Because they cost so much, the Kentucky Department of Corrections has restricted use of the treatment to inmates with advanced liver scarring, or fibrosis.

The majority found that denying treatment to most of Kentucky’s 1,200 inmates with hepatitis C does not violate the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Lisa Lamb, a spokeswoman for the Corrections Department, said its policy aligns with the practices of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, and two courts have now found the department is not violating the constitutional rights of prisoners.

Louisville attorney Greg Belzley, who represents prisoners in the class-action lawsuit, called the decision “horrendous” and said they would ask for a rehearing with the full court or petition the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case. “Basically the majority … ruled that Kentucky prison officials don’t have to do anything to treat an inmate’s infection except sit around and watch it get worse,” he told the paper in an email.

Belzley said the department doesn’t treat any infected inmates until their liver has already become cirrhotic, and while hepatitis C is curable, cirrhosis is not. He said as of August 2019, the most recently available figures, the department had identified 1,670 prisoners as HCV-positive. Only 159 had received any treatment.