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Settlement guarantees $41M for treatment of Colorado inmates with hepatitis C

The Colorado Department of Corrections is spending $41 million for Colorado inmates who need treatment for hepatitis C.
Credit: KUSA
Medication for hepatitis c.

KUSA — The American Civil Liberties Union and the Colorado Department of Corrections have agreed to a settlement that guarantees $41 million to provide hepatitis C medication to Colorado inmates.

The ACLU declined to comment on the settlement itself because the Colorado State Claims Board has yet to review and approve it. However, a spokesperson confirmed the dollar amount of the deal -- a number that was first sent to 9NEWS by John Spring, an inmate at the Sterling Correctional Facility.

He's one of the eight prisoners named in a complaint filed last year against the CDOC.

The ACLU alleged in the complaint that the CDOC was withholding medications from a vast majority of hepatitis C-positive inmates, and instead relied on a blood test and scoring system to determine who had enough liver damage to be eligible for treatment.

Even then, some inmates were also required to complete drug and alcohol therapy before they could be considered for medication.

“We recommend treatment for everyone and that's what the national guidelines say,” said Sarah Rowan, the associate director of HIV and viral hepatitis prevention at Denver Public Health. She said Denver Health treated 400 hepatitis C patients so far this year.

Rowan said a recent medical breakthrough has led to the distribution of pills that cure 95 percent of hepatitis C patients who take them within eight to 12 weeks.

“The sticker price, which is not necessarily what is paid, but is often around $26,000 to treatment someone for two months,” Rowan said.

According to the ACLU, an estimated 2,200 prisoners in the CDOC have chronic hepatitis C – and the cost of the treatment was cited as the reason why more inmates didn’t receive it.

The CDOC had a “quota” of 30 inmates a year who actually received treatment for hepatitis C up until 2017, when that number was upped to 70, the ACLU's complaint alleges.

In the 2015-16 fiscal year, the ACLU said seven inmates died from hepatitis C-related complications.

“Complications from the disease kills as many Coloradans in custody every year as drug and alcohol abuse, homicide and suicide combined,” ACLU of Colorado Legal Director Mark Silverstein said in a news release.

Hepatitis C is a virus that typically affects the liver and could lead to cirrhosis or scarring.

“A cirrhotic liver over time really just gives up and leads to what we call in-stage liver disease, and people can die from that,” Rowan said.

According to a notice of settlement obtained by 9NEWS, the ACLU settled with the state of Colorado on Aug. 15.

Earlier this year, the state legislature approved $20.5 million from the state general fund to pay for hepatitis C medication this year, and another $20.5 million will be paid out as part of the settlement next year.

The Colorado Department of Corrections spokesman, Mark Fairbairn provided the following statement:

"The Colorado Department of Corrections (CDOC) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have agreed to a memorandum of understanding regarding the treatment of HCV for the offender population, and expect to have a signed settlement agreement pending necessary approvals. The signed agreement does not include any monetary payout. The CDOC proactively and responsibly worked with the legislature to secure $41 million in funding for the treatment of HCV which was appropriated in the 18/19 budget and will include such funding in our budget submittal for fiscal year 19/20."

The ACLU filed similar class-action lawsuits in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Missouri, Tennessee, Florida and Virginia.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with additional information from the Colorado Department of Corrections and will continue to be updated as more information becomes available.

Correction: Denver Health provided 9NEWS with the wrong number of hepatitis c patients it treated in 2018. We have corrected this story to reflect that it was 400 patients so far this year.

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