High Cost of Hepatitis C Treatment Affects Prisoners

High Cost of Hepatitis C Treatment Affects Prisoners



Budget for Prisoner Drugs

Everyone in the country is facing rising prescription drug costs, and prisoners are not an exception. In 2007, NBC called hepatitis C the “deadliest inmate.” (1) How are states handling the treatment of this epidemic among incarcerated individuals?

The Wall Street Journal is reporting today that hepatitis C medicines, “are so expensive, and the problem so widespread, that to treat all sufferers would blow up most prison budgets. List prices for the newer drugs range from $54,000 to $94,000 a person for a typical 12-week course.” (2)

Drugs for Inmates
Criminal Defense Attorney Darren Kavinoky weighs in on the controversy saying, “Kindness and humanitarianism is preferred. Be nice to people. If there are drugs that will help people, then I think we’ve got an obligation to provide them. And, if we’re going to talk about the pharmaceutical industry and the artificial pricing that goes on there, it’s insanity. So, yes, these are prisoners. They are people who have broken the law, but they are human beings and deserve to be treated as such. So, be nice.”

The cost of providing hepatitis C drugs to inmates is not a new issue. Michael Ollove, for USA Today, covered the astronomical costs in 2014, reporting that Ronald Shansky, former medical director of the Illinois prison system and founder of the Society of Correctional Physicians, described that price as “extortionarily high, criminal.” (3) Ollove puts the cost in perspective by explaining, “the average annual cost for states to house an inmate is $29,141. The minimal cost of treating a single patient with the new hepatitis C drugs is more than double that amount.” (3)

To be fair, the cost of hepatitis C drugs are not only a problem in prisons, they are also a difficult issue with for those on Medicaid. States policies vary on providing the drugs. But according to reporter Lisa Schencker for the Chicago Tribune, “The state of Illinois has backed off a 2-year-old policy that allowed only its sickest residents with hepatitis C who rely on the traditional Medicaid program to get disease-curing drugs. …Illinois residents on Medicaid with stage 3 liver scarring — not just the sickest patients with stage 4 liver scarring — will be able to access the drugs.” (4)

What is Hepatitis C?

According to the CDC, “Hepatitis C is a liver infection caused by the Hepatitis C virus (HCV). Hepatitis C is a blood-borne virus. Today, most people become infected with the Hepatitis C virus by sharing needles or other equipment to inject drugs. For some people, hepatitis C is a short-term illness but for 70%–85% of people who become infected with Hepatitis C, it becomes a long-term, chronic infection. Chronic Hepatitis C is a serious disease than can result in long-term health problems, even death. The majority of infected persons might not be aware of their infection because they are not clinically ill. There is no vaccine for Hepatitis C. The best way to prevent Hepatitis C is by avoiding behaviors that can spread the disease, especially injecting drugs.” (5)

California Prisons and Hepatitis C Drugs

California has altered its budget for the expensive breakthrough drug. According to David Siders for the Sacramento Bee in January 2015, “Tucked inside [Governor Jerry] Brown’s annual spending plan was $300 million for the cost of new hepatitis C drugs, including Sovaldi, the drug approved in December 2013. …The single budget item – $100 million this fiscal year and $200 million in 2015-16 – eclipses proposed general fund spending on state parks or on emergency drought response next year.” (6)

As a society, we are faced with the question of how to stop the spread of this disease. What is the value of a prisoner’s health on society? Could making prisoners healthier with expensive medicine stop the spread of hepatitis C?

Rebecca Plevin reports for KPCC radio, that according to Emalie Huriaux, director of federal and state affairs for Project Inform, “There’ a lot of evidence to support treating people who inject drugs, because there’s a very likely possibility that they will transmit the virus to someone else if they’re sharing equipment for injecting drugs. …One estimate I’ve seen is that one person with [hepatitis C] who’s injecting drugs will transmit the virus to 20 other people.” (7)

And there may be legal issues to consider. Do prisoners have a right to be treated? Laura Track, for BC Civil Liberties Association, writes, “During the prison law seminar I took in law school, professor and prison justice expert Michael Jackson said something I’ll never forget. People are sent to prison as punishment, he told us, not for punishment.” (8)

For more information, read “Hepatitis and Incarceration” downloadable pdf published by the CDC at http://www.cdc.gov/hepatitis/HCV/PDFs/HepCIncarcerationFactSheet-BW.pdf.


1. NBC News. nbcnews.com “Prison’s deadliest inmate, hepatitis C, escaping.” Retrieved via http://www.nbcnews.com/id/17615346/ns/health-infectious_diseases/t/prisons-deadliest-inmate-hepatitis-c-escaping/#.V9hZk2grK70.

2. Peter Loftus and Gary Fields. September 13, 2016. The Wall Street Journal. “Costly Drugs For Prisoners Weigh on Public Budgets.” Retrieved via http://www.wsj.com/articles/high-cost-of-new-hepatitis-c-drugs-strains-prison-budgets-locks-many-out-of-cure-1473701644

3. Michael Ollove. USA Today. March 25, 2014. “Should prisoners get expensive hepatitis C drugs?” Retrieved via http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/03/25/stateline-prisoners-hepatitis-drugs/6871187/.

4. Lisa Schencker. Chicago Tribune. September 12, 2016. “State switches stance on hepatitis C drugs, expands access, but not all Medicaid patients qualify.” Retrieved via http://www.chicagotribune.com/business/ct-hepatitis-medicaid-drugs-0912-biz-20160909-story.html.

5. Centers for Disease Control. CDC. “Viral Hepatitis – Hepatitis C Information” Retrieved via http://www.cdc.gov/hepatitis/HCV/index.htm.

6. David Siders. Sacramento Bee. January 16, 2015. “Hepatitis C drug’s high cost hits California budget.” Retrieved via http://www.sacbee.com/news/politics-government/article7058828.html.

7. Rebecca Plevin. KPCC. August 24, 2016. “LA County treating few people for hepatitis C.” Retrieved via http://www.scpr.org/news/2016/08/24/63889/la-county-treating-few-people-for-hepatitis-c/.

8. Laura Track. BC Civil Liberties Association. August 15, 2016. “Health and Human Rights in Prison: The Need for Prison-Based Needle and Syringe Programs.” Retrieved via https://bccla.org/2016/08/health-and-human-rights-in-prison-the-need-for-prison-based-needle-and-syringe-programs/.

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