Oregon inmates allege in a pending class-action lawsuit that treatment for hepatitis C is so woefully inadequate in the state's 12-prison, 11,800-inmate system that it violates the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Prisoners say health care managers systematically deny treatment to hold down costs.
The federal lawsuit seeks $17.5 million for inmate medical expenses, including drug therapy, chemotherapy and potential liver transplants. "It's just unconscionable what's going on," said Phyllis Beck, director of the Hepatitis C Awareness Project in Eugene, Ore. "They're letting prisoners die of hepatitis C." Beck said, "The main reason a lot of these prisoners aren't getting treatment is because of the cost."
Portland lawyer Michelle Burrows filed the suit on behalf of 11 current and former inmates. District Court Judge Anna Brown recently granted Burrows' motion to expand the suit into a class action. All Oregon inmates with hepatitis C now are considered plaintiffs. Corrections Department spokesperson Perrin Damon said, "Treatment protocol is both medically appropriate and conforms with the state's legal obligation to provide medical care to state prison inmates. We look forward to responding to the plaintiffs' claims in court."
Corrections officials estimate that about 30 percent of all Oregon inmates -- roughly 3,500 -- are infected with hepatitis C. Corrections Department Medical Director Dr. Steve Shelton, who oversees the prison system's management of hepatitis C, declined to provide complete data on the number of prisoners given medication for the infection.
In 2001, the only data made available by the department, a dozen inmates received the drug therapy. At a low-end cost of $18,000 per inmate, providing treatment for 10 percent of the infected inmates in Oregon would cost taxpayers at least $6.3 million. At a high-end cost of $30,000 per inmate, the total bill would rise to $10.5 million.
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