Claiming that New Jersey prisoners were not treated for hepatitis C because of the costs, a former inmate filed suit against the state Department of Corrections and its health care supplier for alleged medical malpractice. The lawsuit, which also claims violation of civil rights, was filed Wednesday in federal court in Camden. It is the first to seek class-action status on behalf of all New Jersey prisoners who were not treated for hepatitis C virus.
Plaintiff Walter Bennett, 41, spent 10 years in New Jersey prisons and is now being prepared for treatment by his private liver specialist. He said prison medical staff first told him about his hepatitis infection last summer, two weeks before his release from South Woods State Prison in Cumberland County. Bennett's prison records show that for the last two years, his blood tests signaled possible HCV infection.
The prison system's medical provider, Correctional Medical Services, "was intentionally ignoring the issue of the hepatitis C virus in order to receive a larger profit from the fees received from New Jersey's Corrections Department," the suit says. The Department of Corrections said that none of New Jersey's state inmates is currently being treated for the disease.
The suit also contends that the corrections department and CMS still have not "made adequate plans for the screening, counseling, evaluation and treatment" of inmates infected with hepatitis. That failure, the suit says, has exposed "the general population outside the prison to additional risks of contracting the disease" when uninformed inmates are released. Neither the department nor CMS would comment on the pending lawsuit.
Bennett's attorney, Rosemary Pinto, said that inmates should qualify for treatment under New Jersey's policy of providing care equal to that given in federal prisons. She estimated that 2,000 inmates should qualify, with full treatment costing up to $15,000 each. Several other lawyers who specialize in civil rights cases were also considering filing suits against New Jersey's prisons. Pinto said lawyers typically would work together if a federal court granted class-action status.
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