Most Kansas inmates must wait for hepatitis C treatment


TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Despite a recent settlement of a Medicaid lawsuit involving people with hepatitis C, hundreds of the state's prison inmates will wait another year for the expensive treatment.

Kansas News Service reports state prison officials say more than 700 inmates currently have hepatitis C, which is contagious, damages the liver and in some cases can be fatal. About half will receive treatment this year, starting with those who have liver cirrhosis from the virus.

Civil rights advocates say the delay in treatment could constitute cruel and unusual punishment because inmates have the right to medical care.

"This is a fairly clear Eighth Amendment violation," said Lauren Bonds, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas. "Delayed treatment is unconstitutional."

In March, Kansas settled a lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Kansas on behalf of enrollees in the state's privatized Medicaid program, also known as KanCare. The lawsuit challenged a Kansas policy that restricted the expensive treatment using new antiviral drugs to only the sickest Medicaid beneficiaries. The ACLU argued that without the treatment, a patient can risk complications from the disease.

The lawsuit settlement didn't cover prisons but Kansas began screening inmates for hepatitis C last fall.

Kansas prison officials say more than 700 inmates currently have hepatitis C, which is commonly contracted by sharing needles to inject illegal drugs. The state expects about half will receive treatment this year, starting with those who've developed liver cirrhosis.

That is in addition to about 100 inmates who have been treated in recent months, said agency spokeswoman Jeanny Sharp, who noted the state's treatment strategy is voluntary.

"The treatment strategy," she said, "aligns with what many other states that were sued were asked to do."

The department said costs average between $15,000 and $17,000 to treat a typical inmate, which can involve several months of daily medication.

The state will spend $6 million in fiscal 2020 to treat about half of its inmates with hepatitis C, a corrections official told Gov. Laura Kelly and legislative leaders last week. They unanimously approved the expense.

Under the plan, inmates with less advanced hepatitis C will wait until fiscal 2021 for treatment. The corrections department wanted more funding to treat them this year but the governor's office didn't request the full amount from the Legislature.

A spokeswoman said Tuesday Kelly is committed to ensuring inmates get treatment.

The state "will move as quickly as possible to treat every prisoner affected," Dena Sattler wrote, "and if additional funding is required to keep providing treatment before the next fiscal year, the Governor will make additional budget recommendations as necessary."

Bonds wouldn't rule out the ACLU going back to court to press for speedier hepatitis C treatment in prisons but she said the organization understands the state is facing budgetary constraints.

"We do want to recognize and at least acknowledge that there has been some progress made," she said. "We do want to be reasonable and see if there is a non-litigation means to get prisoners treated more quickly."


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