Nearly 500 inmates have been cured of Hepatitis C since Robert Barfield and several other inmates filed a federal lawsuit against the commissioner of the state Department of Correction in July 2018, according to their attorney.
The state and the plaintiffs came to a settlement in the lawsuit in November that requires every inmate who enters the system until March 2022 to be tested and treated for the disease which can destroy liver tissue leading to death, court papers said.
It’s a poignant moment for attorney Kenneth Krayeske, who along with his partner DeVaughn Ward, pursued the lawsuit even as state officials sought a dismissal on the grounds that Barfield had started receiving direct acting antiviral medications to destroy the Hep-C virus.
“I’m humbled,” Krayeske said. “I have a hard time talking about it without getting choked up. It’s a humbling accomplishment. It’s a small step in the long walk for health care for all.”
Under the terms of the settlement, the DOC will be required to test and treat inmates for Hep-C and report their activities to the court every three months until March of 2022. Krayeske will have the ability to file complaints with the court if he feels the work isn’t being done or that inmates aren’t being treated in accordance with the agreement.
The state will also pay Krayeske $112,000 in legal fees for representing the inmates in the lawsuit, according to the settlement.
The drugs to treat Hep-C are not cheap, Krayeske said. He estimates that it cost the state $1.2 million to test roughly 14,000 inmates since August of 2019. The cost of treatment for those who test positive for the virus is about $25,000 per inmate, he said. Based on that calculation, the DOC has already spent about $11 million on treatment for the 475 who have been treated and cured.
The legislature approved $20 million for the treatment of Hep-C in the agency’s 2021 fiscal year budget. The agency also has a $10 million “carry-over” from fiscal year 2020 that can be spent on Hep-C.
In the period from August of 2019 to Dec. 30, 2020, 1,398 inmates have tested positive for Hep-C with 475 receiving treatment. The others will be “staged” or evaluated for the seriousness of the disease and receive treatment on a priority basis.
Legislative approval of the settlement is required because the cost is over the $2.5 million baseline for legal settlements that must come before the General Assembly. The resolution for the approval of the settlement was filed with the Judiciary Committee on Jan. 5.
The committee opted Wednesday to hold off on voting on the agreement until members had a financial accounting of how much the settlement will cost, said Co-Chair Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven. The committee must first approve the settlement before it can be sent to the full legislature for review. If the full legislature fails to act in 30 days, the settlement will be considered approved.
“We have people in custody and we have a responsibility for their health,” Winfield said. “The settlement is a good thing. There’s a large dollar amount but it’s the cost we have to bear. We’ve already budgeted for it, so I think we should pass it.”
When it is approved, all inmates who are members of the class action lawsuit will be notified about the agreement and given an opportunity to comment on whether they agree with the terms before a federal judge holds a fairness hearing.
The attorney general’s office, which defended the state in the lawsuit, deferred all comment to the DOC. Officials from the DOC declined to comment citing the pending legislative approval.
By the time the settlement was reached, the DOC was on its third commissioner and its second health care management system and the agency had become the subject of several other lawsuits claiming lack of basic medical care was leading to deaths and serious illnesses among inmates.
Barfield, an inmate serving sentences for crimes committed in Nevada and Connecticut, filed suit with other inmates in July 2018 after they were repeatedly denied treatment for Hep-C..
The agency’s health care system was in such disarray at the time that the although DOC had received a $300,000 grant to begin testing inmates in 2018, the money was never collected or used, Krayeske argued in the lawsuit.
Barfield had repeatedly asked for treatment since he had been moved to Connecticut in 2012 to serve his sentence, court papers said. By 2015, the DOC knew that at least 10 to 12% of inmates had Hep-C and later estimates had risen to about 50% of the state’s inmate population, yet very few were receiving treatment, Krayeske said.
The state sought to have the lawsuit dismissed in 2019 in part on the grounds that Barfield had begun receiving treatment by that point. A federal judge agreed in August 2019 to throw out some of the claims, but left the remaining Eighth Amendment claim that the agency had shown indifference to their medical needs, moving the lawsuit forward. The judge also agreed to designate the lawsuit as a class action that would encompass all inmates who tested positive for Hep-C.
The next day, DOC Commissioner Rollin Cook agreed to test all inmates and start providing treatment on a priority basis leading to the 475 who are now considered cured.
“I believe this new initiative will be an effective weapon in combating the spread of hepatitis C, which is a byproduct of the opioid addiction crisis,” Cook said at the time. “This is not just a Department of Correction problem, this is a public health problem, and we are more than willing and able to work towards fixing it.”