Missouri Corrections Department, Corizon to spend $50 million to treat inmates with hepatitis C

Michael Postawko's attorneys said he contracted hepatitis C at the Jefferson City Correctional Center in 2012.

At first, he didn't have any symptoms. But then two years later, he began experiencing chronic fatigue, fever and abdominal pain. While the prison medical staff provided him medication for his symptoms, they didn't treat him for the virus, according to a class-action lawsuit against the Missouri Department of Corrections and its medical care provider.

Postawko is one of the named plaintiffs in the suit, which was filed in December 2016 by the ACLU of Missouri and the MacArthur Justice Center.

Now four years later, a federal judge approved a settlement in this case, which includes providing $50 million in hepatitis C treatment and education to Missouri prisoners over the next eight years.

"Because of this settlement, thousands of Missourians whose lives are imperiled by untreated Hepatitis C will receive the treatment they need, which will help stop the spread of the disease to communities throughout the state," said Tony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU of Missouri.

The Missouri Department of Corrections did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the settlement.

According to the lawsuit, at least 10-15 percent of the Missouri prison population is infected with hepatitis C.

In January 2015, the Corrections Department reported treating 0.11 percent of its hepatitis C-positive inmates, or five inmates out of 4,736 inmates, with known infections.

Left untreated, individuals can develop chronic liver disease and painful complications, as well as risk spreading it to others. Medical experts recommend a 12-week treatment regimen with direct-acting, anti-viral drugs, the ACLU said, which results in curing the disease in at least 90 percent of cases.

Another "critical aspect" of the settlement agreement is it increases inmates' access to information about their own personal health, said Amy Breihan, co-director of the MacArthur Justice Center of Missouri.

"Too often, we heard from class members that they weren't receiving their test results or couldn't afford their own medical records," Breihan said. "As a result, they were in the dark about the severity of their condition or when they might receive treatment."

The settlement agreement requires the Corrections Department and Corizon, the contractor providing medical care to Missouri prisons, to share test results related to hepatitis C and give inmates with hepatitis C free access to their medical records.

The department has also agreed to revamp testing procedures, said Betsy Henthorne of Wilkinson Walsh law firm, who represented some of the inmates.

"Better testing will mean earlier and more accurate diagnoses, and along with other provisions in the agreement, will lead to less suffering and better, faster, and more effective treatment," Henthorne said.

The settlement agreement between all parties was reached in August. The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri ordered that all the class members be notified of the agreement.

After evaluating statements of support, objections, and comments submitted, U.S. District Judge Nanette K. Laughrey gave final approval Oct. 28.

The Missouri Independent is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization covering state government and its impact on Missourians.