Hadrian via shutterstock
Hepatitis C drugs (Hadrian via shutterstock)

HARTFORD, CT — An inmate being held in a Connecticut prison is suing the Correction Department because he wants prison officials to give him access to expensive medication that would cure his hepatitis C.

Through attorney Ken Krayeske, the prisoner, Robert Barfield, filed a federal class action lawsuit last week against the state Department of Correction claiming his constitutional rights have been violated. The department is refusing to give him access to a drug treatment program that would cure him.

Hepatitis C (HCV) is a blood-borne disease caused by a virus. The hepatitis C virus causes inflammation that damages liver cells and is the leading cause of liver disease. It’s a disease that can be spread and its now curable thanks to expensive drugs that range from $54,000 to $95,000 per patient, per course of treatment. A typical course of treatment lasts 12 weeks.

Drugmakers including Gilead Sciences Inc., AbbVie Inc. and Merck & Co. have been selling hepatitis C drugs since 2013 with higher cure rates than older drugs for the disease.

“The failure to provide treatment also creates the potential for further spreading of the disease to the general public,” Krayeske wrote. “These actions amount to deliberate indifference to the serious medical needs of CT DOC prisoners with hepatitis C.”

In 2016, the department reported that only four inmates had HCV, according to a survey by Yale University. The same survey found that Massachusetts reported 1,505 inmates with hepatitis C, 60 of whom were receiving treatment.

Earlier this year, Massachusetts prison officials agreed to expand treatment for inmates with hepatitis C following the filing of a federal class-action lawsuit.

The Massachusetts case is among the first settlements of several class-action lawsuits accusing prison systems in other states of denying inmates access to costly drugs. Other states with similar actions pending include Indiana, Pennsylvania, Missouri, Minnesota, and Tennessee.

“We will review the complaint and respond appropriately in court,” Jacqueline Severance, a spokeswoman for Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen said. “We would decline further comment.”

Like the other states, Connecticut seems to be struggling with finding a balance between a constitutional right and its ability to pay for these drugs.

At one point, according to the lawsuit, one of the manufacturers of the new HCV treatment — Gilead Sciences — offered the Correction Department $300,000 grant to test all prisoners for HCV. But the money was never obtained following disagreements among state officials about who would handle the testing.

Since Connecticut doesn’t test for the virus when people enter prison, it’s unknown how many inmates may have hepatitis C. But research suggests that it’s more than four.

National studies have found that the prevalence of HCV in prison is 16 to 41 percent higher in U.S. jail and prison populations than it is in the general population.

According to Krayeske, the department conducted a study in 2015 of prisoners at New Haven Correctional and learned that 10-12 percent of the population had HCV. That means 93 of the 779 prisoners in the New Haven jail at the time were HCV positive.

Dr. Johnny Wu was the medical director for Correctional Managed Health Care, which was operated by the University of Connecticut in partnership with the Correction Department, between June 2012 and March 2017.

According to the lawsuit, Wu did not believe HCV was a problem and never sought to test all the inmates for the virus.

In 2014, according to an article in BusinessInsider.com, Wu said there are 20 inmates being treated with the direct-acting antiviral drugs.

“My total budget is about $89 million to deliver healthcare for 16,200 people. That’s mental health, dental, medical, consults, surgeries. To have a couple of million dollars tied up for hep C is a big portion of my budget,” Wu told the magazine.

Wu is no longer with the medical team in charge of inmate care, but the “deliberate indifference” to Barfield’s medical condition continues, according to Krayeske.

He said Barfield, who is currently being housed at Corrigan Correctional Facility, will continue to suffer without access to the drugs.