HARTFORD, CT – The Judiciary Committee voted to send a settlement agreement requiring testing and treatment for Hepatitis C for all Connecticut inmates to the full legislature for approval.
The cost of testing all incoming inmates and treating those who test positive for the virus would be about $18.7 million a year, according to acting Department of Correction Commissioner Angel Quiros.
The legislature is required to vote on any settlement that exceeds $2.5 million. If the legislature does not take up the issue within 30 days, the settlement will be considered approved.
The settlement resolves a lawsuit filed in 2018 by Robert Barfield and several other inmates who claimed the DOC was violating their Eighth Amendment rights to standard medical treatments by not addressing Hep-C which can spread quickly in populations that use intravenous drugs and share equipment.
The DOC was already in the process of figuring out how to test all inmates before agreement talks between the inmates’ attorney, Kenneth Krayeske and the state began, according to Quiros.
The previous DOC commissioner, Rollin Cook, agreed to begin testing on Aug. 7, 2019, one day after a federal judge denied the state’s attempt to dismiss the lawsuit and made the litigation a class action encompassing all inmates held by the agency.
Since then 14,082 inmates have been tested with 1,398 coming up positive for Hep-C, Quiros said. Of the group, 475 have received treatment and are considered cured of the virus which, if left unchecked can cause severe liver damage including cancer, Krayeske said.
Another 60 are being evaluated and 863 have either been discharged from the DOC before treatment was given or have self-cleared which happens in about 20% to 40% of cases, DOC officials said.
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 receiving treatment in accordance with the agreement.
“The Attorney General’s Office determined that this is the best course of action and the settlement is fair,” said Deputy Attorney General Margaret Chapple.
After an hour of discussion and a 90-minute caucus session, the committee passed by a wide margin a resolution to be considered by each chamber.
Some Republicans, including state Rep. Kimberly Fiorello, R-Greenwich, expressed concern over the cost before voting against the agreement, but they were in the minority.
“I’m struggling with this vote,” Fiorello said. “I do feel we have to take care of the people who are in the care of the state.”
Fiorello went on to say, “The taxpayers could have a massive bill to pay” during a time when people are struggling.
Rep. Doug Dubitsky, R-Chaplin, echoed Fiorello’s concerns. “Once a person is incarcerated the state absolutely must provide good health care and a standard of care,” Dubitsky said. His issue was the way the resolution was worded. He said the committee was voting on “a blank check” when DOC officials knew how much the settlement was going to cost.
The DOC was given $10 million taken from other pools of money in fiscal year 2020 to start testing. The legislature agreed to another $20 million for fiscal year 2021. So far, the DOC has spent $9.9 million on testing and treatment with the bulk of the money paying for the antiviral drugs, which cost about $24,000 per person, Quiros said.
Moving forward, the agency plans on testing about 8,000 new admissions a year with the anticipation that nearly 700, or about 10 % will come up positive and require treatment, he said. The annual cost is pegged at about $18 million, Quiros said.
Since the agreement only runs until 2022, Quiros said he will continue to advocate for annual funding to maintain the directive developed under Cook to test each incoming inmate and provide a course of antiviral drugs if the individual will be in the custody of the DOC for at least the eight to 12 weeks it takes to complete treatment.
It’s not only an inmate health issue, it’s a public health issue that can help stop the spread of Hep-C, said DOC Medical Director Byron Kennedy.
“We are treating everybody, even if they are at the lowest level of infection,” Kennedy said. “The majority of folks are returned back to the community.”