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Hep C Lawsuit Against Missouri Prison System To Go Forward As Class Action

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A lawsuit alleging the Missouri Department of Corrections systematically denies medical treatment to prisoners with chronic hepatitis C has taken a big leap forward after a judge certified it as a class action.

U.S. District Judge Nanette Laughrey last week ruled that the lawsuit, which was filed in December, meets all the requirements for class certification, including numerous plaintiffs and common issues of law and fact.

The ruling is significant because the class potentially includes thousands of inmates. At least 10 to 15 percent of the Missouri prison population is infected with hepatitis C, and the corrections department itself, in response to a Sunshine Act request, estimated last year that it had 5,200 inmates with hep C. The hepatitis C rate among the general population is about 1 percent.

"By not treating them, they're increasing the spread of the disease within this population," says Gillian Wilcox, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Missouri, which represents the plaintiffs. "Ninety-six percent of these people are coming back into communities."

David Owen, a spokesman for MDOC, declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.

Hepatitis C is a potentially deadly but curable viral infection that attacks the liver. It can lead to symptoms ranging from mild illness to cirrhosis, which can cause death.  

In the past, there was no effective treatment for chronic hepatitis C (HCV) infections. In recent years, however, the Food and Drug Administration has approved several so-called direct-acting antiviral drugs that have proven 90 percent effective in curing the disease.

MDOC reported that as of January 15, it was treating .11 percent of its HCV-positive inmates, or a total of five inmates out of 4,736 inmates with known HCV infections at the time.

The lawsuit was filed by three inmates in the Missouri Department of Corrections (MDOC), Michael Postawko, Christopher Baker and Michael Jamerson, who have been diagnosed with HCV. None of them have been treated with direct-acting antiviral drugs, they allege. Baker says he has received no treatment whatsoever since 2010 and Baker says he’s not even on a list for treatment.

Besides MDOC, the lawsuit names numerous defendants, including prison officials, doctors and nurses and Corizon, a privately held prison contractor that provides medical care in MDOC's prisons. 

Similar lawsuits have been filed in at least seven other states, Colorado being the latest

Dan Margolies is KCUR’s health editor. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies.

Alex Smith is a health reporter for KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @AlexSmithKCUR

Copyright 2021 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.

Dan was born in Brooklyn, N.Y. and moved to Kansas City with his family when he was eight years old. He majored in philosophy at Washington University in St. Louis and holds law and journalism degrees from Boston University. He has been an avid public radio listener for as long as he can remember – which these days isn’t very long… Dan has been a two-time finalist in The Gerald Loeb Awards for Distinguished Business and Financial Journalism, and has won multiple regional awards for his legal and health care coverage. Dan doesn't have any hobbies as such, but devours one to three books a week, assiduously works The New York Times Crossword puzzle Thursdays through Sundays and, for physical exercise, tries to get in a couple of rounds of racquetball per week.
Alex Smith began working in radio as an intern at the National Association of Farm Broadcasters. A few years and a couple of radio jobs later, he became the assistant producer of KCUR's magazine show, KC Currents. In January 2014 he became KCUR's health reporter.
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